Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Tennessee, as in other states, most 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 Tennessee employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, you might have a legal claim 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 of death or 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.
Also, if you were essentially forced to quit your job because of serious coronavirus-related safety hazards that put you at risk, you might have grounds to sue your employer for “wrongful constructive termination” in violation of public policy. In order to succeed with this argument, you would generally have to show that your former employer intentionally subjected you to intolerable and illegal working conditions that would compel any reasonable person in your position to quit. (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 employer in Tennessee for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Tennessee 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 Tennessee 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. For age discrimination, the minimum is 20 employees, and for citizenship status discrimination the minimum is four employees.
Tennessee law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, creed, disability, age (40 and older), and use of a guide dog. Tennessee employers must comply with these laws if they have at least eight 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. The Tennessee Human Rights Commission enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination. 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. Tennessee also recognizes implied employment contracts based on promises in an employee handbook. For example, if your employee handbook guarantees that employees won't be fired without 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.
It is illegal for employers to fire employees for exercising their rights under federal wage and hour laws or state equal pay laws. Because Tennessee has no minimum wage law, employees are entitled only to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, unless a city or county has established a higher minimum wage. Federal law requires employers to pay overtime to hourly employees when they work more than 40 hours in a workweek.
Under Tennessee law, employees who are scheduled to work a shift of at least six consecutive hours are entitled to a 30-minute unpaid meal break, unless the nature of the work provides ample time for breaks during the day. Tipped employees who work in food or beverage service may waive their right to a meal break. 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 when they're required to 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 Tennessee, these rights include:
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Tennessee 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.