North Dakota Wrongful Termination Laws

Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In North Dakota, 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 Dakota 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 North Dakota employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of North Dakota employment rights, which can change as courts issue new rulings and legislators pass or modify laws. To find out the full extent of your legal claims, speak to an experienced North Dakota employment lawyer. To learn more about North Dakota employment law, contact the office of the North Dakota Department of Labor.

Discriminatory Firing

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 Dakota law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (40 and over), disability, marital status, or receipt of public assistance. All North Dakota 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 North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; the Department has offices in Bismarck. 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.

Breach of Contract

If you have a written employment contract promising you job security, you are not an at-will employee. North Dakota also recognizes employment contracts based on statements in an employee handbook. For example, if your employee handbook states that employees will be fired only for certain conduct, that may create an implied contract that you won't be fired unless you commit such conduct. If you have an employment contract, and your employer fires you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract.

Wage and Hour Issues

The minimum wage in North Dakota is $7.25 per hour. Under federal and North Dakota law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week are eligible for overtime. North Dakota requires employers to provide employees with a 30-minute meal break during each shift that lasts more than five hours. The break can be unpaid as long as the employee is relieved of all duties. Under federal law, employers who choose to offer breaks of 20 minutes or less must generally 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 in North Dakota to fire employees for testifying in a wage hearing or participating in related legal proceedings.

Time Off Work

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 Dakota, these rights include:

  • Military leave. Under federal law, employees have the right to take up to five years of leave to serve in the military, with the right to be reinstated when they return to work. (This law also prohibits discrimination against employees based on their military service, protects employees from discharge without good cause for up to one year after they return from military duty, and provides other protections; see Nolo’s article Taking Military Leave for more information.) North Dakota law also protects those who need leave for state duty. Employers may not terminate, demote, or otherwise discriminate against volunteer members of the North Dakota Army National Guard or North Dakota Air National Guard, or volunteer civilian members of the civil air patrol. The employer must allow such employees to be absent or tardy from work for up to 20 days in a calendar year because they are responding to a disaster or national emergency. (The 20-day limit does not apply to involuntarily activated members of the state National Guard.)
  • Jury duty. In North Dakota, employees are entitled to unpaid leave for jury duty. Employers who fire or penalize employees are subject to criminal penalties and special damages in a wrongful termination lawsuit.
  • Family and medical leave. North Dakota employees are protected by the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks off, unpaid, every year for a serious health condition, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, to care for a new child, or to handle certain practical matters arising out of a family member’s military service. Employees can take up to 26 weeks off in a single year to care for a family member who is seriously injured while serving in the military. Employees who take FMLA leave must be reinstated to the same position once their leave is over. To learn more, see Nolo’s FMLA page.

Other State Claims

  • Workers' compensation. Employers are prohibited from firing employees for filing workers' compensation claims or seeking workers' compensation benefits.
  • Whistleblowing. Employers may not fire or otherwise retaliate against employees who report illegal activity (or suspected illegal activity) within the company, to the police, or to a government agency. Similarly, employers may not fire employees who in good faith refuse to engage in what they believe to be illegal activity.
  • Off-duty conduct. Employers may not fire employees who engage in lawful activities outside of work, as long as the activities don't conflict with the legitimate business interests of the employer.

What to Do Next

If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a North Dakota 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.

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