Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In New Jersey, as in other states, employees work at will. This means an employee can generally be fired at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all.
But there are some exceptions to the at-will rule. For example, if your New Jersey employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, you may have a legal claim against your employer for wrongful termination.
Every state’s laws on wrongful termination are different. This article covers some of the common legal grounds you might have for suing your New Jersey employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of New Jersey employment rights, which can change as courts issue new rulings and legislators pass or modify laws. To find out the full extent of your claims, speak to an experienced New Jersey employment lawyer. To learn more about New Jersey employment law, contact the office of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to fire an employee based on a protected characteristic. Federal law prohibits employers from firing employees based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (if the employee is at least 40), disability, citizenship status, or genetic information. However, only employers with a minimum number of employees must comply with these laws. Most types of discrimination are prohibited once an employer has at least 15 employees. However, for age discrimination the minimum is 20 employees, and for citizenship status discrimination the minimum is four employees.
New Jersey law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, ancestry, national origin, nationality, sex, religion, age (18 to 70), disability, genetic information, sexual orientation (includes affectional orientation and perceived sexual orientation), marital status (includes civil union or domestic partnership status), HIV/AIDS, gender identity or expression, atypical hereditary cellular or blood trait, and military service. All New Jersey employers must comply with these laws, even if they have only one employee.
These laws also make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for asserting your rights. For example, if you complain to your company’s HR department that you believe you were passed over for promotion because of your age, your employer may not discipline or fire you for your complaint. Likewise, your employer cannot fire you for participating in an investigation of a discrimination complaint (no matter who made the complaint), testifying in court, or making other efforts to stop discriminatory practices.
Before filing a discrimination or retaliation lawsuit, you must file a complaint with the appropriate government agency. The New Jersey Division of Human Rights enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; its offices are in Concord. In many cases, state fair employment practices agencies will record your complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces federal antidiscrimination laws. However, you should check to make sure. If not, you may also have to file a complaint with the EEOC; you can find contact information for the nearest office at the EEOC’s Field Offices page.
If you have an employment contract promising you job security, you may not be an at-will employee. In New Jersey, an employment contract may be written, oral, or implied. In the first two types of contracts, your employer makes oral or written promises not to fire you for a certain period of time without good cause. In an implied contract, your employer acts in a way that creates a reasonable expectation that you would continue to be employed. For example, if your employee handbook states that employees will be fired only for good cause, you may have an implied contract. If you have an employment contract, and your employer fires you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract.
In New Jersey, employees are entitled to a minimum wage of $8.60 per hour. Under federal and New Jersey law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week are eligible for overtime. Although some states require employers to provide meal or rest breaks, New Jersey does not. Under federal law, though, employers who choose to provide breaks of 20 minutes or less must pay employees for that time. Employers also must pay their employees for any time during which they must work, even if the employer characterizes that time as a “break.”
It is illegal for employers to retaliate against employees for exercising their rights under wage and hour laws.
State and federal laws give employees the right to take time off work for certain civic obligations and personal responsibilities. Employers may not discipline or fire workers for exercising these rights. In New Jersey, these rights include:
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a New Jersey employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you sort through the facts and assess the strength of your claims. A lawyer can also inform you of other state or local claims that you may have in addition to those listed above. Whether you want to try to get your job back, negotiate a severance package, or sue your employer in court, a lawyer can walk you through your options and help you decide on how best to proceed.