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What Is Wrongful Termination?

Employers often have great discretion over the hiring and firing of their workers. However, if an employer fires an employee in certain forbidden circumstances, this may constitute wrongful termination. To be wrongful termination, the discharge must be a breach of an employment agreement and a violation of state laws or federal laws.

While employers often have great discretion over the hiring and firing of their workers, in certain circumstances firing an employee can constitute wrongful termination. For a firing to meet the definition of wrongful termination, it must be a breach of contract of an employment agreement and a violation of federal and or state laws. For instance, firing someone over their religious beliefs would violate federal civil rights law.

What is wrongful termination? This article addresses this essential question, as well as the definition of at-will employees, employee rights, illegal reasons for employers to fire their employees, and when to contact an employment attorney.

At-Will Employment and Its Limitations

The most common form of employment is "at-will." This means that the employee may be terminated at the will of the employer. Employers don't need to have a good reason for such termination, nor do they need to provide advance warning or fair procedures. In every state but Montana, the law presumes that employment is at will unless there is evidence to the contrary. An example of such evidence would be an employment contract allowing "for cause" termination only.

At-will employers may, therefore, fire at their discretion. For example, an employer may fire an employee for violating a company policy in the employee handbook, or for consistently being late. Neither of these would be examples of wrongful termination.

However, there are many exceptions to an at-will termination. For example, at-will employment does not allow employers to fire employees in violation of that worker's contract. Similarly, an employer may not terminate an employee for discriminatory reasons that are prohibited by local, state, or federal law. An employer can't fire an employee in retaliation for reporting certain illegal activity, such as hour and wage violations, sexual harassment, or terrible working conditions. An employer can't fire an employee for rightfully exercising FMLA leave. Wrongful termination occurs in any of these instances where the employer fires an employee for these illegal reasons.

Discriminatory Firing

One of the most widely known forms of wrongful termination is terminating an employee based on discriminatory grounds. Federal law protects workers from being fired or penalized for certain discriminatory practices. Firing an employee on the basis of their race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, pregnancy, and age clearly meets the definition of wrongful termination. Several states and localities also prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Employees who have been fired or penalized for a discriminatory reason may file a claim of discrimination with the U.S. Department of Labor Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a state or local anti-discrimination agency. Employees who have been wrongfully terminated for discriminatory reasons should act quickly. Generally, claims are subject to strict time limits and must be made before further legal action can be taken.


Employers can't fire or punish employees for engaging in certain protected activities. Some activities which a worker can't be fired for include informing an employer about harassment or discrimination, filing a complaint with the EEOC, taking permitted medical leave, or participating in an investigation of wage and hour violations.

Many "whistleblower" statutes protect employees who report illegal or harmful activities. Whistleblower laws include protections when reporting violations of environmental regulations, safety laws (such as reporting unsafe work environments), labor laws, or other laws. Whistleblower protections help protect employees from retaliation from their employer.

Similarly, many states prevent employers from terminating employees in violation of public policy. In such public policy cases, an employer can't retaliate against a worker for taking time off to vote, sit on a jury, or serve in the military or national guard.

Termination in Violation of Employment Agreements

An employer who fires workers in violation of the terms of their employment contract may be engaging in wrongful termination. Written contracts or other statements that promise workers job security, regular advancement, or specific termination procedures, provide evidence that employment is not at will. For example, an employment contract may specify that a worker can be terminated only for certain specific reasons, such as failure to meet performance requirements. Firing that worker for other reasons would be a violation of their employment contract and wrongful termination.

It may also be impermissible to fire an employee in violation of a company's specific discipline or termination policy. If an employee handbook lists specific discipline procedures, such as requiring a certain number of warnings before termination, the employer may be bound to follow those procedures even when employment is otherwise at-will.

Terminated employees may also be able to show that their firing violated an oral or implied promise. Where an employer made verbal promises of continued employment or specific termination procedures, for example, a court may find that an implied employment contract existed. In examining whether an implied contract existed, courts will look at factors such as the duration of a worker's employment, the regularity of promotions, oral or written assurances made to the employee, and the employer's typical practices and patterns of behavior.

If You've Been Wrongfully Terminated

If you believe you've been wrongfully terminated, you may be entitled back pay, reinstatement, compensatory damages, and other relief (including punitive damages). A wrongful termination lawyer can help you understand the laws in your area and what options are available to you. They will help you review your legal rights and guide you through your wrongful termination case with experienced legal advice.

Since the definition of wrongful termination varies between jurisdictions, contact a qualified employment law attorney in your area to discuss your circumstances and review your wrongful termination claim. A wrongful termination lawsuit may be the only way for you to get damages for your wrongful termination.

Speak to an experienced employment lawyer today.

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