If you win a wrongful termination lawsuit, the compensation (also called "damages") available to you depends on your legal claims. The primary purpose of damages in a wrongful termination lawsuit is to put you in the same position you would have been in, if not for your employer's misconduct. No matter what legal theories you rely on in a wrongful termination suit, you can usually expect to be compensated for wages and benefits that you lost as a result of being fired illegally.
In addition to these out-of-pocket losses, you might also be entitled to damages for pain and suffering (for the emotional turmoil and other negative effects of the illegal act), punitive damages (intended to punish the employer for especially egregious conduct), attorneys' fees, and court costs. Other non-monetary remedies may also be available, such as reinstatement to your job. It all depends on the legal arguments your lawyer makes and the facts of your case.
Can You Recover Damages If You Were Wrongfully Terminated for Reasons Related to COVID-19?
You might have a valid claim for wrongful termination if you were fired for any of the following reasons related to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic:
- in retaliation for complaining about or reporting 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 serious 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.)
When you win a lawsuit against your former employer based on discrimination, the damages you might recover depend on whether you sued under federal or state law. For most types of discrimination, damages can include:
Federal law places a cap on the amount of damages an employee can receive for compensatory damages (out-of-pocket costs and pain and suffering combined) and punitive damages. The caps are based on the size of the employer and are as follows:
While these rules apply to most discrimination cases, there are special rules for age discrimination cases. You cannot receive compensatory damages and punitive damages in an age discrimination case. However, your former employer may have to pay a penalty (called "liquidated damages") equal to the back pay award, if the employer knew its conduct was illegal or it recklessly disregarded that possibility. State laws may provide for different damages for age discrimination cases.
As to all other types of discrimination cases, state laws vary as to whether—and how much—you can be awarded for compensatory damages and punitive damages. In some states, there is no limit, and a jury can award whatever amount it feels is warranted by the evidence (although jury awards are subject to review if they are deemed excessive). In other states, there is a limit on how much you can receive. The caps vary significantly from state to state.
Most employees in this country work at will. This means the employee can quit or be fired at any time, for any reason (as long as the reason is not illegal, such as discrimination). However, not all employees are at-will employees. Some employees have written or oral contracts, which guarantee that they will not be fired except for certain reasons. If the employer fires the employee for a reason not stated in the contract, the employee can sue the employer for breach of contract.
In a breach of contract lawsuit, the damages depend entirely on the terms of the contract. For example, suppose you have a five-year employment contract and are to be paid $100,000 per year. If you're fired without good cause after three years, you would be entitled to the $200,000 that you would have earned during the last two years of the contract. The same goes for any benefits, bonuses, or other compensation that you were guaranteed under the contract.
This isn't the end of the story, however. You have a legal duty to minimize your damages by looking for a new job. In other words, you can't simply sit around for two years, cashing paychecks. You must make an active effort to find new work, and any wages earned will be subtracted from what is owed under the contract. For example, suppose after six months, you were able to find a new job paying $100,000 a year. In that case, you would only receive $50,000 for the half year that you were unable to find work.
In a breach of contract case, you're not entitled to pain and suffering or punitive damages., and you can only recover attorneys' fees and costs if there's a clause in the contract giving the winner of the lawsuit that right.
If you've been wrongfully terminated, you might be able to sue the employer for other civil claims, called "tort" claims. Often, these lawsuits allege that the employer violated public policy or injured your reputation or ability to earn a living.
In many states, employees can sue for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. In a case like this, you would claim that you were fired for reasons that most people would find morally or ethically wrong. For example, you may be able to sue for violation of public policy if you were fired for exercising a legal right (such as the right to serve on a jury or join the National Guard), for refusing to engage in illegal activities (such as submit false shareholder documents or lie to a government auditor), or for reporting illegal conduct within the company.
Another common workplace tort is defamation. In this type of case, you would claim that your employer intentionally made false statements about you that damaged your reputation. Often, these claims arise when the employer gives negative references to potential employers during the employee's job search.
In a tort case, your damages may include lost wages and benefits, attorneys' fees, court costs, pain and suffering, and punitive damages.
If you were fired in violation of a state or federal law, the law may specifically state the amount of damages available to you. For example, under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, employers are required to allow eligible employees to take time off for certain health and caretaking reasons. When your leave is complete, your employer must reinstate you to the same position (with a few narrow exceptions). If it doesn't do so, you may sue for wrongful termination and collect lost wages and benefits, attorneys' fees, and court costs. The statute also allows courts to award liquidated damages, in an amount that is equal to your actual out-of-pocket losses, unless the employer had a reasonable basis to believe that its conduct did not violate the law.