You may have heard the term “wrongful termination” in a lot of situations. However, only certain types of termination are classified as “wrongful” under the law. A wrongful termination requires that you be fired for an illegal reason. Illegal reasons could include violation of antidiscrimination laws, violation of whistleblower laws, or breach of contract for example. If your termination was not the result of a legal or contractual violation then you are likely employed at-will and may not have legal recourses for a termination that you consider unfair. For more information about at-will employment and wrongful termination read below.
“Wrongful termination” is a phrase that is often misused and may be confusing. People often believe that they have a lawsuit for wrongful termination any time they have been fired unjustly. However, wrongful termination from a legal perspective describes a situation in which the employer violates a specific law, public policy, or the terms of an employment contract by firing you. Many of those laws have their own enforcement mechanisms, and so a separate legal claim for wrongful termination may not be necessary. There is no federal law against wrongful termination, and therefore what is considered to be “wrongful termination” will vary by state, with some states not recognizing a separate legal claim for wrongful termination at all. If your employer has not violated a law, public policy or employment contract, then your employment is most likely “at-will employment” and your termination alone does not violate the law or give you a right to go to court.
At-will employment refers to the legal principle applicable to most private workplaces in the United States. At-will employment means that the employer or the employee can end the employment at any time, with or without advance notice, and for any reason–or no reason–at all. Wrongful termination is a very limited exception to at- will employment. Please refer to our At-Will Employment page for more information.
Although most employees in the private sector do not have employment contracts, some information that employers put in writing may qualify as a contract. A written contract or other document that promises job security at the time of employment may be considered a legally binding promise. A written contract with the terms outlining the methods of termination can also be enforceable.
Even promises not made in writing can sometimes be considered binding implied promises. Verbal promises or gestures that an employer has made may seem hopeless because they are hard to prove. However, implied contracts have been found where employers promised “permanent employment” or employment for a specific period of time, or where employers set forth specific forms of progressive discipline in an employee manual.
When determining whether an implied contract exists, the court may consider various factors such as: duration of employment; regularity of job promotions; history of positive performance reviews, and more.
Some states permit unfairly terminated employees with employment contracts to bring a claim for a breach of the duty of “good faith and fair dealing” that is implied in all contracts. These acts may include anything from firing or transferring employees to prevent them from collecting sale commissions to coercing employees to quitting without collecting severance pay or other benefits. This is not often recognized as an exception to at-will employment, but might be applicable in your state.
If an employer fires an employee for reasons that society recognizes as illegitimate grounds for termination, it is considered a violation of public policy. These reasons may include: firing for taking time off work to vote or serve on a jury or even notifying authorities about some wrongdoing harmful to the public (whistleblowing).
If you believe that you have been wrongfully terminated, it would be wise for you to contact an employment attorney and also seek unemployment benefits. Working with an attorney will help you determine if you were actually wrongfully terminated and where to go from there. Seeking unemployment will help ease the financial hardship, while you seek new employment.