There are many circumstances when a termination may feel “wrongful.” You may feel that your employer did not give you a chance to explain your side of the story, or that other employees also engaged in the same conduct as you and were not terminated. While your termination may have been unfair, that does not necessarily mean that is it “wrongful” under the law.
When is a Termination “Wrongful”?
Wrongful termination from a legal standpoint means that you have been terminated for an illegal reason. There are many illegal reasons for firing an employee. For example, employers cannot terminate an employee based on a discriminatory purpose. There are both federal and state laws that protect workers who are members of a protected class. These laws prevent discrimination based on:
- National origin
A termination may also be wrongful if the employer fires an employee for asserting one of their legal rights, including asserting a workers’ compensation claim or reporting the employer for safety violations to the local or federal authorities. These rights also include using the time off that is allowed under federal and state laws. Under the Family Medical Leave Act, your employer must give you unpaid time off for certain personal or family medical events. If your employer fires you for taking this time, then you may have a claim for wrongful termination. Other rights that employees are always able to assert include:
- Taking time off to serve on a jury
- Taking time off to serve in the military or National Guard
- Taking time off work to vote
If an employee is terminated for refusing to engage in illegal activity, then the worker may also have a wrongful termination claim. Federal and state laws support employees who report illegal or unethical activities (whistleblowers) as part of their policy to encourage ethical behavior within businesses.
Wrongful Discharge and At-Will Employment
The vast majority of employees in Virginia are hired on an “at-will” basis. This means that both the worker and the employer could end the employment relationship at any time they would like, for any reason. While some workers assume that an employer has to have a reason to fire you, this really is not true. Employers can terminate your employment for virtually any reason they like, whenever they like.
This rule may seem harsh, but there are several exceptions. First, if you have some expectation of continued employment, then you may not be considered an at-will employee under the law. For example, if you are a teacher and you have been working at the same location for several years, and you have already planned out your upcoming lesson plans for the year, you have some expectation that your employment will continue. The court will sometimes treat this expectation as if it were a contract under an implied promise rule.
Essentially, you have assumed that your employment will continue and your employer has not given you any indicate otherwise, so they are implicitly promising you continued employment. If you think you fall into this type of situation, an employment law attorney can be a huge asset to help you determine if you may have a wrongful termination claim.
Another exception comes into play when the employer has specific policies regarding disciplinary actions and termination. For example, the employer may have some version of a “three strikes and you’re out” rule. Under this system, if the employee violates policies or does not perform satisfactorily three times, then they can be terminated. If the employer fires you without following this policy, that could be grounds for a wrongful termination claim.
A third exception may occur if your employer is not technically acting illegally, but is acting unethically in the termination of employees. Consider an example. Assume that your company has a policy of promoting employees at their five-year anniversary with the company. The promotion comes with a hefty bonus and raise. If your company fires you shortly before this anniversary to prevent you from getting the raise and bonus and hires a new employee instead, then you may have a wrongful termination claim.
Dangerous or Undesirable Tasks
Situations, where the employer is forcing you to do dangerous or undesirable tasks in an effort to make you quit, may also be grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. The employer is also not permitted to make up reasons to let you go if the real reason they want to terminate you is to hire someone who will work for less pay. Some courts are not as sympatric to employees in these types of situations, however. A skilled employment lawyer in your area will be able to help you determine whether a court is likely to find in your favor in these types of cases.
Contracted Employees and Wrongful Discharge
Employees who have a contract with their employer have extra protections if they are terminated. Their contract likely includes a clause that explains what the process should be if either party wants to break the contract for employment. If the employer does not follow these guidelines, then the employee may have wrongful termination claim. The employee will also likely have a breach of contract claim as well.
The same general wrongful termination claims are available to contracted employees as well. The only difference is that the employee may have contracted away some of their rights that they would normally have as an at-will employee. If you are considering entering a contract with an employer, you may want to have an employment lawyer look over it to be sure you understand your rights and limitations under the contract before you sign.
Proving Wrongful Discharge
Because there are a variety of reasons that a wrongful discharge could have occurred, what you need to prove in court will depend on the unique circumstances of your case. Some of the most common reasons, however, include discrimination and retaliation.
In a discrimination case, you must show that each of the following events actually happened:
- You are a member of a protected class
- You were qualified for the position in which you were working (education, experience, personality traits, etc.)
- You were terminated
- At least one other employee who is not also in your protected class was not terminated
- You were more likely than not terminated because of your status in a protected class
These elements can be difficult to prove, particularly the last requirement. Employers rarely explain that they terminated an employee because of a discriminatory reason outright.
You may have a retaliation claim if your employee has terminated because you asserted a right or engaged in whistleblowing. These rights may include:
- Filing an OSHA complaint
- Filing for workers’ compensation
- Filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (discrimination)
- Complaining to an employer about harassment
- Reporting any illegal activity to state or federal authorities
- Participating in any investigations or hearings regarding the employer’s illegal activities
In a retaliation claim, you must also prove that several events occurred. These include:
- You engaged in a protected activity
- Your employer acted after you engaged in the activity
- Your employer’s actions resulted in adverse consequences for you (including termination)
Damages in a Wrongful Termination Case
In some situations, you may be able to be reinstated at your previous job as a “damage” in a wrongful discharge case. Many employees who sue their employer for wrongful termination do not want their jobs back, so they may wonder what other options they may have for damages. Monetary damages are by far the most common damage available to an employee asserting this type of claim.
There are several types of money damages available in a wrongful termination claim. They may include:
You may be awarded money based on what you would have earned if you had continued working for your employer. This also includes overtime, shift differentials, and any other compensation that you would have earned.
If you received health insurance, retirement contributions, or other benefits, you may be awarded an amount of damages for those lost benefits as well.
Losing your job can be devastating, particularly if your wages provide for your family. You may be able to claim some amount of damages for the emotional distress caused by the termination as well.
Punitive damages are designed as a way to “punish” the employer for their wrongdoing. These damages may be available if the employer’s conduct was especially unethical or egregious. In some situations, you may not be able to get this type of damage at all based on state laws—talk to an employment lawyer for more information.
Your damages are also offset by any wages, benefits, etc. that you receive after your termination.
Contact Our Firm Today!
An employment law attorney can help you navigate the ends and outs of wrongful termination claims. If you explain your situation in detail to an attorney, he or she will be able to tell you if you have a valid wrongful termination case. Don’t wait, set up an appointment today for more information.