Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In North Carolina, 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 North Carolina 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.
What If You Were Illegally Fired During the Coronavirus Pandemic?
A shocking number of Americans have lost their jobs as a result of the economic downturn stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. But what if you were fired during the pandemic? Depending on the reason you were dismissed, you might have a valid claim for wrongful termination. For instance, it would generally be illegal for your employer to fire you:
- in retaliation after you complained about or reported unsafe working conditions, such as inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing, or cleaning
- for refusing to work because you had a reasonable belief that you faced an immediate risk or death of serous physical harm due to unsafe working conditions
- for refusing to violate a legal shelter-in-place order
- for taking family or medical leave under state or federal law, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) (discussed below)
- because you have a preexisting condition (including your age) that makes you more vulnerable to the coronavirus, or
- because you filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits for COVID-19.
(Learn more about wrongful termination in the context of COVID-19.)
Every state’s laws on wrongful termination are different. This article covers some of the common legal grounds you might have for suing your North Carolina employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of North Carolina 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 North Carolina employment lawyer.
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.
North Carolina law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, genetic information, HIV or AIDS, military status or service, and sickle cell or hemoglobin C trait. North Carolina employers must comply with these laws if they have at least 15 employees.
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. In North Carolina, the Employment Discrimination Bureau enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; the Bureau has offices in Raleigh.
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.
If you have a written employment contract promising you job security, you are not an at-will employee. North Carolina also recognizes employment contracts based on statements in an employee handbook, such as statements that you will be fired only after certain disciplinary steps are followed. Oral promises by your employer may also create a contract, as long as you provided something in return and relied on your employer's promises. If you have an employment contract, and your employer fires you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract.
It is illegal for employers to discriminate or retaliate against employees who file wage claims or who participate in wage hearings or other legal proceedings.
North Carolina employees are entitled to a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Under federal and North Carolina law, most employees who work more than 40 hours a week are eligible for overtime. North Carolina doesn't require employers to offer meal or rest breaks, but if they do, federal law requires that employees must be paid for breaks of 20 minutes or less. Employers also must pay their employees for any time during which they must work, even if the employer characterizes that time as a “break.”
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 North Carolina, these rights include:
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a North Carolina employment lawyer. Whether you want to get your job back, negotiate a settlement, or file a lawsuit, a lawyer can help you assert your legal rights. A lawyer can also inform you of any other claims that you might have under state or local law.