Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed June 20, 2016
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 termination 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 her race, gender, ethnic background, religion, or disability. It is also illegal to fire an employee because they lodged a legal complaint against the employer, or because the employee brought the employer’s wrongdoing to light as a whistleblower. Such adverse actions are considered "retaliation" and are unlawful. FindLaw's Wrongful Termination section explains the meaning of "at-will" employment, how to determine whether you have an implied employment contract, the elements of wrongful termination, and how to file a claim against an employer.
Employment is considered "at-will" and therefore not guaranteed in all states besides Montana. This means your employer is free to terminate your employment at any time, for any reason or for no particular reason at all. The exception, though, is when an employee is fired for illegal reasons (such as discrimination or retaliation) or in violation of an employment contract. If you are able to prove that your termination was prompted by racial intolerance or a culture of sexism, for instance, then you might have a claim for wrongful termination.
Do You Have an Employment Contract?
If you signed a contract that outlined the duties, responsibilities, and benefits of employment, then the employer must honor these terms. A written contract that suggests a certain level of job security, for instance, could be taken to mean that the job is not "at-will." And if the contract states that the employee may be fired only for failing to meet certain benchmarks, then the employee may not be terminated for other reasons. If you don't have a written employment contract, your employer still may have certain obligations from verbal promises.
Discrimination and Job Loss
Most cases of wrongful termination are associated with discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, pregnancy, or age. Employees with these characteristics are protected both federally and under state laws, some of which also include sexual orientation and gender identity. If an employee in California is terminated for being transgendered, for instance, that individual may file a wrongful termination suit against the employer because LGBT workers are protected in the state.
If you have been terminated and believe it was done for discriminatory reasons (and you are able to show this through evidence), then you should file your complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within the time limit provided.
An employer may not fire (otherwise punish) an employee for engaging in certain protected activities, such as informing one's employer about sexual harassment or seeking to form a labor union. To do so is referred to as retaliation, an action that can get an employer sued for wrongful termination. Other protected activities include taking medical leave, sitting on a jury, serving in the military, taking time off to vote, or participating in an official investigation into the employer's practices.
Federal law and most state laws prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who report suspected violations of the law through so-called "whistleblower" protections. For instance, an employee who informs the Environmental Protection Agency that her employer is dumping toxic waste into the local watershed is protected by whistleblower laws (at least at the federal level).
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