If you were recently “let go” at your job, you may be wondering if your firing was illegal. Known as wrongful dismissal or wrongful termination, these legal phrases describe any situation in which an employee has been dismissed or terminated from his position by an employer in an unlawful manner. The termination typically breaches one or more terms of the contract of employment, or violates a statute provision in employment law. It is now always easy to recognize wrongful termination, especially if your employer is not clear about why you have been let go.
Most employment is “at will,” meaning that the employee can be fired at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. However, the reason for terminating the employment must not be illegal. Issues such as discrimination in the workplace based on race, sex, national origin, and similar characteristics can result in a wrongful termination claim. Wrongful termination may also occur due to a violation of whistleblower laws or a breach of contract. As the laws surrounding wrongful termination are not always cut and dry, you may need to discuss your personal situation with a wrongful termination attorney to determine if you have a case.
Due to the number of myths and misconceptions associated with wrongful termination, it is easy to get confused. Here we will debunk these common myths.
1. Any Firing That Seems Unfair Is Unlawful
While your reason for getting fired may seem unfair to you, it does not necessarily amount to wrongful termination. Under Virginia law, there are only three primary exceptions to “at will” employment. First, an employee cannot be dismissed for exercising a right stated in his contract, such as taking advantage of employee benefits. Next, an employee cannot be terminated for refusing to act illegally, such as refusing to hack into a competitor’s system. Finally, an employee cannot be fired for asserting his rights under certain statutes, such as engaging in peaceful protesting.
2. You Cannot Sue If You Are an Independent Contractor
If you are an independent contractor, you may feel like you have few employment rights. However, it is important to understand that even as an independent contractor you are protected from wrongful termination. This is especially true in scenarios when employees are misclassified as independent contractors. If you have been misclassified, the law will treat you as an employee and you will therefore have the same rights as employees. If you are truly are an independent contractor, you may have other legal claims if you have experienced malicious or wrongful termination.
3. An Employee Cannot Be Fired for Sick Leave
While being sick is sometimes unavoidable, you are not necessarily excused from your work duties due to an illness. There is no Virginia law that requires private sector employers to provide employees with sick leave, either paid or unpaid. However, some employers do grant sick leave. If your employer has granted you sick leave, then he cannot lawfully terminate you as long as you follow all terms relating to sick leave in your contract. State employees are an exception as most are eligible to take paid family and personal leave for absences due to an illness, accident, or death in the family.
4. There Is No Way to Prove Termination Due to Whistleblowing
A whistleblower is an employee who exposes information or activity that is deemed unethical, illegal, or improper in the workplace. In Virginia, there are laws that protect employees of private employers which allow them to file a formal complaint with the commissioner. You cannot legally be fired for exposing unlawful information about your employer or company, but it can be difficult to prove. However, once you make a complaint there will be a thorough investigation that will likely bring the truth to light.
5. An Employee Cannot Sue If He Quits
Just because you decide to quit your job does not mean you forfeit your employment rights. Under the concept of constructive discharge, an employee is able to quit and still sue if a work environment becomes dangerous, hostile, or intolerable. An employee may also sue if he is asked or forced to resign. As all situations are different, you will want to first consult with a wrongful termination attorney to determine if you have a case based on the specific scenario and how both you and your employer handled the situation. Just know that quitting does not necessarily mean that you can no longer sue.
Have You Been Wrongfully Terminated?
There are many reasons why employees are fired, but only a select few are considered unlawful under employment laws. One of the most widely known forms of wrongful termination is firing based on discrimination. Federal laws protect employees from being penalized or terminated based on certain discriminatory reasons, such as a worker’s sex, race, color, religion, national origin, or age. An employee can also not be punished or fired for engaging in certain protected activities, such as taking permitted medical leave or filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Finally, an employee cannot be legally terminated if the firing violates the terms of their employment contract. Written contracts and employment statements may promise workers certain benefits and job security. A contract may also have specific termination procedures that an employer must follow when dismissing an employee. When a contract is written and signed by an employee, the worker can only be fired for specific reasons that do not go against the contract, such as failing to meet certain performance requirements. Firing for any unlawful reason is a violation of the employment contract.
Contact a Wrongful Termination Attorney
If you believe that you are a victim of wrongful termination, contact our wrongful termination attorney at The Brown Firm today. We can help you determine if your firing goes against any state or federal employment laws, and help bring your case to the forefront. Call our office to schedule a free consultation and see how we can help you protect your rights.