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Unfairly Fired: What Qualifies as Wrongful Termination?

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The Great Resignation is a term used to describe the mass resignation of employees from their jobs. This is the nearly 3% of the American workforce that has chosen to leave their employment on their own accord.

But you may be surprised to learn that there were an additional 1.4 million individuals who were either let go or laid off from their employment through no fault of their own.

As employment attorneys, we see people every single day who are terminated unfairly from their jobs and they face many obstacles to getting what is owed them. Most don't even try.

What is a wrongful termination? How does the law handle wrongful termination? Is it difficult to prove you've been terminated wrongfully?

No matter the circumstances, nobody ever wants to imagine getting terminated from their job and if you find yourself in this position, there are many things you should know that can help you.  

What Is Wrongful Termination?

Wrongful termination is a legal term referring to when an employer terminates the employment of a worker for a wrongful cause. This termination is deemed unlawful, unjustified or in violation of public policy.

What qualifies as wrongful termination? In the simplest terms, the employer fired an employee for a reason that's considered illegal. 

There are several illegal reasons for being terminated. Some of these reasons might be as follows:

  • There's a violation of the employment agreement between the employer and employee.
  • The employee reported illegal actions of the employer to authorities.
  • The employee refused to participate in illegal behavior while on the job.
  • The employer is retaliating for an illegal reason.
  • The employer was in violation of anti-discrimination laws, including getting fired for age, race, gender or a disability.

We will look more closely at these types of wrongful termination shortly.

Understanding At-Will Employment

When an employee is fired, an employer may try to use at-will laws or the employee being in the at-will state as a justification.

Most people who work in the private sector are considered at-will employees.

Being an at-will employee simply means that an employer could terminate you at any time and for any reason, except for an illegal reason.

Where at-will employment and wrongful termination meet is in the concept of being fired for an illegal cause.

Kinds of Wrongful Termination 

A wrongful termination can happen in a variety of ways. It all boils down to the employer’s actual reasons for letting you go.  The most crucial component of a wrongful termination lawsuit is demonstrating that the employer dismissed you for an improper reason. This generally entails analyzing specific types of unlawful dismissals that exist. 

Let's take a closer look at a few different kinds of wrongful termination.

Reporting Sexual Harassment

Under the law, employees have both a right and a duty to report sexual harassment at work.  If the employer responds by terminating the employee who complained, that’s a wrongful termination.

Sexual harassment can be defined as sex-based harassment that's unwanted or unwelcome. It might include:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature

A company should have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment in the workplace. Terminating you because you complained about sexual harassment in the workplace is a wrongful termination. 

Hostile Work Environment

Plenty of people have work environments that don't feel warm and fuzzy. Yet, if you've complained about a hostile work environment based on race, religion, disability, age or sexual harassment, you could have a wrongful termination case. 

Race Discrimination

Both state and federal laws are explicit about race discrimination. It is illegal in the workplace. Not only is it morally wrong, but it is also against the law to discriminate against employees because of their race.

When it's blatant, race discrimination is easy to detect. But a person might suffer from race prejudice in less obvious ways at times.

  • Not hiring a person because of their race.
  • Not promoting an employee based on race.
  • Firing a person because of race.
  • Racial stereotyping.
  • Discrimination based on skin color.
  • Segregating employees to do certain jobs based on race.

If you are harassed or fired as a result of speaking out against racial discrimination, you may very well have a wrongful termination claim.

Retaliation Over Workers' Compensation Claims

Every state in the US requires employers to carry some form of worker's compensation insurance. Ultimately, this insurance protects workers if they're injured on the job. 

In theory, it should also protect the employer. The insurance should cover benefits if a worker gets injured and makes a claim. 

However, some employers have been known to harass a worker if the employee makes a worker's compensation claim. Often worker's compensation claims end up in litigation because of the insurance company fighting the claim. 

You might have an employer who punishes an employee who testifies in a case against them. This is completely unlawful. 

An employer cannot discriminate against a worker who's been injured on the job or anyone else who speaks up on their behalf. 

Violations Of The Family And Medical Leave Act 

Federal law protects workers and allows them to take time off under the Family or Medical Leave Act or FMLA. It allows workers to take up to 12 weeks off from work, maintain healthcare benefits, and have their job or an equivalent one waiting for them when they return. 

You might take an FMLA leave for:

  • Birth of a newborn child
  • Care for a foster child or adopted child
  • The need to care for a family member who has a serious medical condition
  • The employee’s own medical condition
  • Caring for a family member injured or ill while in the armed services

If an employer terminates you while you're under the protection of FMLA, or terminates you because you've requested FMLA, you could have a wrongful termination case. 

Wage And Hour Dispute

Several scenarios might lead to wrongful termination over wages for an hourly employee. 

It can be a tough fight to stand up to an employer as an hourly employee. Yet, you have rights. Some scenarios where an hourly employee might have a case include:

  • Failure to pay minimum wage to workers
  • Not allowing employees to take rest or meal breaks
  • Not paying workers overtime as required under labor laws
  • Misclassifying workers

In this kind of wrongful termination case, a worker might be attempting to secure unpaid wages, commissions, or overtime from their employer. As a result, the employer fires them to avoid paying what is due. 

Whistleblower Retaliation

Under the False Claims Act, employees are not only protected but also encouraged to come forward and report information about fraud on federal or state taxpayers.

Whistleblower laws are intended to protect the person who reports a case. Yet, it doesn't always work out that way. 

The laws are also intended to prevent employers from taking punitive action against an employee who acts as a whistleblower. 

The whistleblower laws provide protections to employees who come forward and report certain kinds of illegal activities. 

The whole point of this set of laws is to protect workers so they feel safe enough to report wrongdoing when they see it. 

Proving Wrongful Termination

The key to a wrongful termination case is proving that the termination was wrongful. Of course, that sounds obvious, but how does an attorney go about doing that?

Every case is different and highly dependent on the individual circumstances of the case. 

Of course, the attorney will want to look at employment records and communications you've had with the employer. Then they will consider the type of wrongful termination it might be. 

Then the lawyer will work to put together proof to make a case for you.

Filing a Claim for Wrongful Termination

You might wonder how to report a wrongful termination especially if you know your rights were violated under the law. 

If an employee feels like their termination was a result of their age, race, disability, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or national origin, their first step is to file a Charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). 

The EEOC will conduct an investigation based on what you report.  It almost always makes sense to have a lawyer representing you before the EEOC.

Filing a Lawsuit for Wrongful Termination

If your case doesn't fall under the EEOC’s jurisdiction, you can file a lawsuit in court. 

The claim named in the lawsuit will depend on the circumstances of your case and what led up to you being terminated. 

It's likely your attorney will want to do some investigating as they prepare to file this type of lawsuit. 

Potential Damages From a Wrongful Termination Case

Resolving a wrongful termination means the employer must make it right, usually through financial means. This might mean that the employer is required to pay you a judgment amount from the case. 

This number would be based on: 

  • Lost wages or salary
  • Value of lost benefits
  • Front pay that compensates the fired worker for lost wages from the time of their trial into the future 
  • Possibly court costs or attorneys’ fees
  • Pain and suffering
  • Occasionally, punitive damages might be awarded
  • Any other provable economic losses related to the firing

An experienced attorney will know how to calculate what to ask for when you file a lawsuit based on the individual circumstances of your case. 

Wrongful Termination, Do You Have a Case?

After understanding more about wrongful termination and the different types of possible wrongful termination, you might be wondering if you have a case. 

Ask yourself these questions about your situation. 

  • Did you get fired based on your race, age, disability or gender?
  • Did you make a worker's compensation claim and then get fired?
  • Did you get fired because you expected and asked for compensation that was due to you?
  • Were you fired for exercising rights under the FMLA?
  • Did you get fired because you complained of a hostile work environment?
  • Have you been sexually harassed at work?

Don't let an employer intimidate you into not filing a case if you feel like you have one. 

Getting Help for Your Wrongful Termination Case

If you feel like you got terminated unfairly, you need legal help. You don't want to try to stand up to your employer alone.

If they've already fired you, it's not likely you'll get anywhere without the help of an experienced Pittsburgh employment law attorney.

Remember, the key to a wrongful termination case is proving the employer terminated you for unlawful reasons. Your attorney will best know how to gather and present the evidence to support your case. 

If and when your case goes to court, your attorney will also be key to preparing you for facing your former employer. 

Understanding the How You Can Enter Wrongful Termination Lawsuits

A firing may seem unfair but not be illegal. Just because you "feel" discriminated against, does not mean your case meets the legal standard for the various types of wrongful termination. Your best bet is to contact a qualified employment law attorney who can review the details of your case and offer advice on what to do.