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Was I Wrongfully Discharged From My Job?

Do you know what it means to be "wrongfully discharged" from employment? Do you know that there are many things employers can do to expose themselves to a wrongful discharge suit? Do you know the steps that must be taken to bring a wrongful discharge claim? Do you know that employees can receive many different types of damages if they have been wrongfully discharged? Here are ten important points to keep in mind when considering a wrongful discharge lawsuit.

1. At-Will Employment and its Limits

Employment is considered "at-will" under the laws of most states, which means your employer may fire you (and you may quit) for any reason or no reason at all. However, any termination (including "constructive dismissal," in which the employee is forced to quit) that violates anti-discrimination laws or contractual obligations is illegal.

2. Anti-Discrimination Laws

Employers may not take adverse actions (including termination) against employees on the basis of any protected characteristic, such as race/color, gender, national origin, religion, age, pregnancy, or disability. In addition to these federal laws prohibiting discrimination, many states also prohibit discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, and other identifiers. Some states also expand on existing federal protections.

3. Contractual Obligations

If you have signed an employment contract, your employer is bound by those terms. Even if you haven't signed a contract, your employer still may be obligated to honor verbal promises (an "implied" contract). For example, let's say you signed a contract stating that you will perform certain duties for the employer for a minimum of six months; at the end of the period, the employer will decide whether to keep you longer. If you are fired before six months, you may be able to file a wrongful discharge and breach of contract claim.

4. Whistleblower Retaliation Claims

Depending on the laws of your state (some states only protect public employees), you may be protected against employer retaliation if you report an illegal or unethical act by your employer to the proper agency. For example, a teacher who "blows the whistle" on a school district's wasteful spending or unsafe school conditions cannot be fired as retaliation under whistleblower statutes protecting public employees.

5. Retaliation for Failing to Perform Illegal Acts

Similar to whistleblower protections, employers may not demand employees perform illegal acts (or knowingly require workers to ignore safety regulations). If you refuse to work a double shift at a factory — knowing that it violates wage and hour laws — and are subsequently fired, you likely may file a retaliation and wrongful discharge claim.

6. Protected Time Off

Federal and some state laws, primarily the Family and Medical Leave Act, allow for some employees to have unpaid leave to care for a family member or recover from illness. This law also covers military service members who are called into duty. Employees also may not be fired or retaliated against for taking time off to vote or serve on a jury.

7. Disciplinary and Termination Policies

Even in states with "at-will" employment laws, employers must follow any written policy for disciplinary procedures and terminations (often included in the employee handbook). For instance, a written policy that employees get two warnings for being late before they're fired must be followed. An employee fired after just one warning may have a valid claim for wrongful discharge.

8. Claim Procedure Considerations

Even if you have every reason to believe your termination was unlawful, whether it involves discrimination or retaliation, you may not be able to file a civil claim right away. Most federal complaints must first be filed as "charges" with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). State laws often have similar requirements.

9. Damages Available in Wrongful Discharge Claims

Depending upon the situation, damages available to wrongfully discharged employees can include back pay, promotion, reinstatement, front pay, compensatory damages, reasonable accommodations, injunctive relief, punitive damages, and attorneys' fees.

10. Legal Representation

Given the number of ways an employer can wrongfully discharge an employee, the number of reasons that an employer may give, and the significant damages that may be awarded, it is a good idea for a terminated employee to retain counsel. An experienced attorney can help sort out the various issues and protect the rights and reputation of a wrongfully terminated worker.

Get Legal Help With Your Wrongful Discharge Claim

Losing your job can be a very emotional experience. Perhaps you're angry, frustrated, or even worried about your future. A wrongful discharge claim may help you get back your job or get compensation. If you have additional questions about whether you were wrongfully discharged, you can get answers from an experienced employment attorney.

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