Wrongful termination occurs when an employer fires an employee for unlawful reasons or reasons which violate public policy. Generally, employees are considered at-will employees. Being an at-will employee means an employer may fire the employee whenever he chooses and for whatever reason he chooses. Additionally, an at-will employee may end employment whenever he chooses, for whatever reason he chooses.
An employee is considered to be an at-will employee unless there is language in an employment contract specifying the length or duration of employment. If time of employment is specified, then an employee may typically only be fired for just cause (a lawful reason) or some other legitimate reason.
The only exception to this rule is if an at-will employee is terminated for an improper reason. An at-will employee can make a wrongful termination claim if she is able to show the existence of one or more of the following “improper reasons”: (1) the employer violated a law by firing the employee; certain laws exist which restrict the employer’s right to fire an employee under certain conditions; (2) firing the employee goes against public policy; (3) there was an employment agreement between the employee and employer which stated that employment could only be terminated for cause or barring the existence of some agreed-upon condition.
Certain laws exist which limit an employer’s right to fire an employee. If an employer violates one of these laws, an employee may have a legitimate wrongful termination claim. Examples of these include: firing in violation of federal and state anti-discrimination laws; firing in retaliation for the employee having filed a complaint or claim against the employer including reporting criminal activity or sexual harassment to a supervisor or outside agency; firing a contractual employee; firing an employee who refused to commit an illegal act; firing an employee for taking time off work for family or medical leave as outlined by the Family and Medical Leave Act; firing an employee in violation of any oral or written employment agreements; firing an employee in violation of labor laws or collective bargaining laws; and an employer failing to follow his own termination process or procedure.
Specifically, laws such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act aim to prevent discrimination by prohibiting firing employees based on race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, age, handicap, veteran status. Additionally, some state and federal laws dictate that public employees cannot be fired without cause and without a hearing. An example of an employer failing to follow its own procedure is if an employee is entitled to receive three written warnings of improper job performance before being terminated and she only receives two such warnings.
Examples of instances in which firing the employee might rise to the level of violating public policy include: (1) if the firing violates a fundamental public interest; (2) if the firing leads to an outlandish result which goes against a community interest or public welfare in general; and (3) if the firing directly impacts a citizen’s social rights, duties or responsibilities. Examples might include firing an employee for participating in jury duty, responding to a subpoena, refusing to participate in illegal activity, or serving in the armed forces.
Wrongful termination can also result if an employer breaches an agreement or term in an employment contract. This includes any oral or written agreement, whether expressed or implied, between an employer and employee. Wrongful termination in this context is considered a breach of contract.
An at-will employee does not have a wrongful termination claim simply because she was fired for irrational or illogical reasons, such as a negative personality trait or nepotism. This is an acceptable action by the employer in the eyes of the law. Furthermore, some states will not even recognize a wrongful termination claim brought by an at-will employee.
The two most common remedies for wrongful termination include the employee getting his job back or reinstatement, and monetary compensation. This includes compensatory damages, which aim to “make a person whole” and punitive damages, which punish the employer and aim to discourage the employer from acting the same way in the future. Damages might include lost wages, back pay and legal fees.
Another possible course of action for an employee who believes he was wrongfully terminated would be to file a tort action against the employer. An example of this would be to bring an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim against an employer in civil court for the harm the employee suffered as a result of being fired.