Although many individuals who are terminated from their job feel their termination was “wrongful”, especially if it was done without cause, the legal definition of wrongful determination is quite specific. To be wrongfully terminated is to be fired for an illegal reason, which may involve violation of federal anti-discrimination laws or a contractual breach. For instance, an employee cannot be fired on the basis of race, gender, ethnic background, religion, or disability. It is also illegal to fire an employee because they lodged a legal complaint against the employer.
However, it is important to note that most employment is “at will”, which means an employee may be fired at any time and for any reason or for no reason at all (as long as the reason is not illegal). But there are some important exceptions to the at-will rule – and legal remedies – that may help you keep your job or sue your former employer for wrong termination. These are:
Breach of good faith and fair dealing
If your employer acted unfairly, you may have a claim for a breach of a duty of good faith and fair dealing. Courts have found that employers breached the duty of good faith and fair dealing by:
- Fabricating reasons for firing an employee when the real motivation is to replace that employee with someone who will work for a lower pay.
- Soft-pedaling the bad aspects of a particular job, such as the need to travel through dangerous neighborhoods late at night, and
- Repeatedly transferring an employee to remote, dangerous, or otherwise undesirable assignments to coerce the employee into quitting without collecting severance pay or other benefits that would normally be due.
Some courts do not recognize “good faith and fair dealing” exception and also some states require existence of valid employment contract before an employee can sue for breach of good faith and fair dealing.
Whistle-blowing laws protect employees who report activities that are unlawful or harm the public interest. Some states protect whistle-blowers who complain that their employer broke any law, regulation, or ordinance at all. Other states give employees whistle-blower protection only when they report that their employer broke certain laws, such as environmental regulations or labor laws.
The existence of an implied employment contract – an agreement based on things your employer said and did – is an exception to the at-will rule. This can be difficult to prove because most employers are very careful not to make promises of continued employment. But implied contracts have been found where employers promised “permanent employment” or employment for a specific period of time or where employers set forth specific forms of progressive discipline in an employee manual.
To determine whether an implied employment contract exists, courts look at:
- Assurances that you would have continuing employment
- Whether your employer violated a usual employment practice in firing you – such as neglecting to give a required warning
- Whether promises of long-term employment were made when you were hired
If you have a written contract or other statement that promises you job security, you have a strong argument that you are not an employee at-will employee. For example, you may have an employment contract stating that you can only be fired with good cause or for reasons stated in the contract. If so, you might be able to enforce those promises in court.
If you have been terminated on any of the above grounds, you were out rightly illegally fired.
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