Employment law endeavors to minimize instances of unlawful firing by outlining workplace standards for employee treatment in various scenarios. Due to the nature of at-will employment, both employers and employees can benefit from the ability to end an employment relationship at any time. However, termination should never result from illegal actions.
Employees need to know what constitutes wrongful termination in an at-will employment relationship. Wrongful termination can be prompted by anything from discrimination to FMLA violations. Termination following complaints for questionable treatment could very well be illegal. Employment law specifies a few types of unlawful termination.
At-Will Employment Relationship
Before dissecting the types of reasons for wrongful termination, it’s important to understand that employment in the United States and Pennsylvania is founded on the idea of at-will employment. This relationship sets the tone for every employment interaction. At-will employees can be fired at any time without any type of formal notice or period of time.
Certain industries respond to this reality of employment by creating unions that require mediation between employers and employees when an employment relationship is on the rocks. The main caveat is that employees cannot be terminated for a discriminatory reason. When a discriminatory reason can be proven, a lawsuit may be in order.
Types of Wrongful Termination: The Reasons Behind Unlawful Firing
Wrongful termination stems from discriminatory reasoning. However, this discrimination can be seen in harassment, retaliation, FMLA violations, breach of contract, and even withholding reasonable accommodation. Despite at-will employment, employers must be careful not to terminate employees for unlawful reasons.
At the root of nearly every wrongful termination case is discrimination. Federal, state, and local laws protect employees from employment actions motivated due to age, disability, gender, national origin, race, or religion. If you suspect that your termination occurred due to your protected class status, consult a lawyer for your legal options.
Jason converted to Islam, and he’s been working for the same company for five years. When his boss found out, Jason noticed that things began to get weird. His boss stopped including him in meetings, assigned work elsewhere, and made comments about Jason being “too holy to hang out with the boys” because Jason used his break times for praying. Then, Jason was fired for “poor performance.”
Questions to Ask
Do you have written or verbal evidence of termination due to discrimination by what people have said?
What kind of circumstantial evidence exists?
Did anyone do or say anything that shows a bias against certain classes?
Another key characteristic of unlawful firing can be proof of ongoing harassment in the workplace. To be illegal, this harassment must be used against someone who is part of a protected legal class. While a one-off offensive statement is not grounds for legal action, ongoing and pervasive harassing comments and culture are illegal.
Kari, a 60-year-old secretary, remembers the first time her boss insulted her memory in front of a client. She tried to laugh it off. But then, she overheard him tell a coworker that Kari was getting near diapers again. It wasn’t long before all the other workers were making age-related comments to Kari. She was fired and given no reason.
Questions to Ask
Did a manager make specific or indirect comments about a legally protected class?
How often did the comments occur and did they happen in front of anyone?
Were sexual advances or comments made?
Employers sometimes respond to an employee’s exercise of protected rights with retaliation. By law, employees are entitled to the right to report illegal behavior, use FMLA leave if eligible, and participate in any investigations conducted. If you believe that you were fired in retaliation for exercising an employee right, reach out to a lawyer to explore your legal solutions.
Xion’s workplace came under investigation by OSHA. During the investigation, Xion did his best to cooperate, providing answers and extra information where appropriate. The VP accused Xion of sabotaging the company, and a manager pulled Xion aside, asking him not to say so much to the investigators. Xion continued to participate in the investigation. A week after the investigation, Xion was fired for unexcused absences.
Questions to Ask
Did you participate in a legally protected employee right before termination?
How was your boss’s behavior toward you before termination?
Were you discouraged from participating in an investigation?
Breach of Contract
As the exception to at-will employment, workers who are contracted by verbal or written word sometimes have a case for wrongful termination if their contract was broken. Verbal or implied contracts are sometimes enough to warrant breach of contract. An employer’s word or actions can also be proof of contract.
Written Contracts – a piece of paper, whether an offer letter or other written document, that outlines certain expectations for ongoing employment. Implied Contracts – verbal statements, promising permanent employment or assuring continued employment.
Ember’s manager told her that once she completed 6 months in her current role that she’d be promoted. This statement was made during the hiring interview with a human resources representative present. A year later, Ember still hadn’t been promoted, but she was taking steps within the company to follow up on that verbal promise. Then, she was fired for causing trouble.
Questions to Ask
If you had a written contract, what were the guidelines for termination?
Does your employer have a thorough employee handbook, covering termination practices?
What types of promises have your employers made to you?
Were you ever told you could only be fired for specific reasons?
Family and Medical Leave Violations
Another employee right for eligible companies and eligible employees is FMLA leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible employees to use up 12 workweeks of leave for specific reasons, whether family or health problem related. The FMLA also prohibits employers from firing employees who use FMLA leave.
Nolan took four weeks of approved FMLA leave to care for his wife while she fought cancer. When he returned to work, he noticed that a few people gave him a hard time for being gone for so long. Rather than returning to a full workload, Nolan felt like an intern in his department. Two weeks after returning, Nolan was fired, and his boss joked, “We couldn’t risk having you take the rest of your FMLA leave.”
Questions to Ask
Did behavior alter after you took your approved leave?
Does your termination coincide with your leave or when you tried to return to work?
Have you noticed a similar pattern of treatment?
Voting and Jury Duty
Due to the public responsibility of voting and jury duty, most states look poorly on employers who discipline or terminate employees for taking time off to vote or respond to jury duty summons. The law specifically favors employees who fulfill their jury duty summons in spite of fear for their job. To discipline or terminate an employee for participating in jury duty is illegal.
Catherine worked ahead to ensure that she could answer her jury duty summons. On the day of the summons, she arrived to work at 5 am to finish up. Her boss arrived ten minutes before Catherine had to leave and told her if she didn’t complete the project before jury duty she would be fired. Given no other option, Catherine left the incomplete project and went to jury duty.
Questions to Ask
Did the termination occur in conjunction with the public duty of voting or jury duty?
Was the employee performance record good?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) obligates employers to offer employees with disabilities a reasonable accommodation as long as it isn’t an undue hardship for the company. In fact, employers have the burden to offer reasonable accommodation when they have an inkling an employee may need it. Reasonable accommodation also includes religious beliefs and practices.
Tyler sustained a back injury during a car accident. Sitting at a desk is extremely difficult and uncomfortable for him. He requested a reasonable accommodation of a standing desk. His boss balked at the idea, referring to the height of the cubicle walls. A few weeks later, Tyler was fired without reason.
Questions to Ask
Was the reasonable accommodation request in near proximity to the termination?
Does the employer have a pattern of discrimination against employees with disabilities?
Are employees with disabilities treated differently than those without disability?
How to Sue for Wrongful Termination
A wrongful termination complaint must be filed within two years of the situation in state court. If you hope to include charges of discrimination or retaliation, your complaint must be filed within 180 days of the event with the EEOC. Some situations might be more complex to figure out on your own so reach out to a legal professional with your questions.
Every piece of paper that relates to your employment, including write-ups, work evaluations, and termination letter, should be gathered as you prepare to seek legal help. You may want to include time sheets. Record in detail the information leading up to your termination.
File your lawsuit.
To sue for wrongful termination, your case will need to be filed with the state court. Be sure to have your paperwork ready, and it helps to know what you want to gain from a lawsuit. If you want to be able to navigate the legal system confidently, speak with a lawyer about your case.