Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Virginia, as in most 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 Virginia 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 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.
(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 Virginia employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Virginia 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 Virginia employment lawyer. To learn more about Virginia employment law, contact the office of the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry.
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, the minimum is 20 employees for age discrimination and four employees for citizenship status discrimination.
Virginia law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, disability, age, genetic information, or marital status. Virginia's law applies to employers with more than five employees but fewer than 15 employees. In addition, discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal in the context of public employment.
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 Virginia, the Division of Human Rights enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; the Division has offices in Richmond.
If your employer has between six to 14 employees, you must file with the Division of Human Rights. If your employers has 15 or more employees, you must file your complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces federal antidiscrimination laws.
If you have a written employment contract promising you job security, you are not an at-will employee. Virginia also recognizes implied employment contracts based on statements in an employee handbook or oral promises on which the employee relied. For example, if your boss promised that you wouldn't be fired for the first year of your employment, and you moved across the country to accept the job, 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.
Employees in Virginia are entitled to a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. While Virginia has no overtime law, federal law requires employers to pay employees overtime when they work more than 40 hours in a workweek. Although some states require employers to provide meal or rest breaks, Virginia does not. Under federal law, though, employers that 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.”
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 Virginia, these rights include:
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Virginia 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.