If you've recently lost your job, you may be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In the District of Columbia, as in all states (except Montana), 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. If your DC employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, for example, 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 D.C. employer for wrongful termination. However, this is not a comprehensive list of employment rights in the District, 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 D.C. employment lawyer. To learn more about D.C. employment law, contact the District Department of Employment Services.
Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to fire someone based on a protected characteristic. Federal law prohibits employers from firing employees because of their 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; the minimum is 20 employees for age discrimination and four employees for discrimination based on citizenship status.
D.C. law protects several characteristics that are not protected by federal law. In D.C., it is illegal to discriminate based on race, color, national origin, sex (including pregnancy and breast feeding), religion, disability (physical or mental), age (18 and older), genetic information, marital status (including domestic partnership), sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, family responsibilities, personal appearance, political affiliation, or enrollment in a college, university, or other secondary school. In the District of Columbia, all employers must comply with these laws, even those with 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. In the District of Columbia, the Office of Human Rights enforces state 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; you can find contact information for the nearest office at the EEOC’s Field Offices page.
If you have an employment contract promising you job security, you may not be an at-will employee. In D.C., an employment contract may be written, oral, or implied. In the first two types of contracts, your employer makes oral or written promises not to fire you for a certain period of time without good cause. In an implied contract, your employer doesn't make express promises, but acts in a way that creates a reasonable expectation that you would continue to be employed. For example, if your employee handbook says that employees won't be fired without good cause, that may create an implied contract of continued employment. If you have an employment contract, and your employer fires you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract.
In the District of Columbia, the minimum wage is currently $9.50 per hour, but this will increase to $10.50 on July 1, 2015. Employees must receive overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours in a workweek. D.C. does not require employers to provide meal or rest breaks. However, if your employer chooses to offer meal or rest breaks, you must be paid for any breaks of 20 minutes or less. It is illegal for D.C. employers to fire an employee for filing a wage claim or testifying in a wage hearing.
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 D.C., these rights include:
If you believe you were wrongfully terminated, you should speak to a D.C. employment lawyer right away. A lawyer can evaluate your claims and walk you through your options, whether it be negotiating a settlement, filing an administrative claim, or moving forward with a lawsuit. A lawyer can also inform you of other state or local claims that you may have in addition to those listed above.