You’ve heard about wrongful termination claims. How much do you know about them? Wrongful termination occurs when you are fired from your job for an illegal reason. Some confusion exists as most states, including California, follow “at-will” employment rules, meaning you or your employer can end your employment at any time.
Even in an at-will state, federal laws dictate certain conditions where you cannot be fired. You cannot be fired for reasons that are not justified. There are some exceptions to at-will employment. They include:
- Workers whose employers written or said things that give a clear understanding that at-will rules won’t apply
- Employees covered by a union’s collective bargaining agreement
- Public-sector employees protected by civil service laws
- Employees with contracts that contain terminology requiring a “good cause” for the firing
You were just fired, and you’re not sure it was a justified termination. How can you tell if you have a case of wrongful termination against your employer? Learn more about the common types of wrongful termination claims.
Breach of Contract
Breach of contract is one reason for wrongful termination. Suppose you have a written agreement that defines your employment benefits, work duties, responsibilities, and employer’s responsibilities. In that case, any termination must follow the rules outlined in that contract. If you’re fired for something that goes against what your contract states, you were fired illegally. You have a valid wrongful termination complaint.
As an example of breach of contract, Jackass star Bam Margera is suing Paramount for firing him from the Jackass movie after he failed a drug test. While there was a clause requiring him to pass daily drug tests to keep his job, the drug he tested positive for was one he’s been taking for a decade for bipolar disorder and ADHD. As it is a necessary medication, Margera and his legal team feel including it as a prohibited drug violates the drug testing agreement.
Discrimination can take several forms. If an employer fires someone because they wear a hijab to work, that’s religious discrimination. Losing your job for being of a certain race, nationality, sex/gender, or age is also illegal. If your boss finds out you’re trying to become pregnant and fires you, that’s pregnancy discrimination. You also have a discrimination complaint if you’re fired for a disability.
A Walmart employee was fired from her job when her hours changed. She’d worked a noon to 4 p.m. shift for 15 years, and that shift worked well for her needs. When her hours changed, she explained that her disability made it impossible to work the new hours, but the store wouldn’t shift her schedule back and fired her. She won a $125 million discrimination verdict against Walmart.
The Family and Medical Leave Act provides qualifying workers with protections against dismissal when extended leave is needed due to a medical issue with the employee or a family member. It includes up to 12 unpaid weeks off in a year for an employee needing additional time to recover from an illness or health condition, care for a new child or adopted child, or care for a parent or spouse.
In Massachusetts, an employee was granted FMLA to undergo a tumor removal surgery on his foot. When he was mobile earlier than expected, he requested to end his FMLA leave early, but his employer refused without a new note from the surgeon. The surgeon was unavailable for another month, so the employee traveled to Mexico with his family and followed his surgeon’s guidelines on activities to avoid during his recovery. When the employer found out he’d traveled, they fired him. Courts found for the employee and awarded him over $1.3 million.
Hostile Work Environment
A hostile workplace is defined as a work environment that makes your job impossible to do due to unwelcomed actions, words, or behaviors by a supervisor or coworker that make you feel scared, threatened, or otherwise uncomfortable.
In 2019, an Oregon woman filed a hostile workplace and discrimination complaint against her employee following months of coworkers making offensive comments about her race. When she reported the situation to her supervisor, excuses were made, and no action was taken.
During an event, a coworker introduced her as the company’s “slave.” She met with an HR official to report the behavior. She later learned they never investigated and instead offered to transfer her to a lower-paying job in a different department, which forced her to resign rather than agree to the cut in pay. Her lawsuit ended in a $160,000 settlement.
If you report someone in your workplace for discrimination, harassment, etc., sometimes coworkers and supervisors retaliate. It can lead to situations like a hostile work environment, demotions, or firings. If that happens, it’s a type of wrongful termination known as retaliation.
In Vermont, a worker/trainee was fired after reporting health and safety issues that he overheard in the workplace. A supervisor told one of the trainees that she couldn’t leave until she found someone to cover her shift. Even though she was sick, she was forced to work, and proper cleaning supplies to disinfect areas were unavailable. He reported it to the director. A day later, he also ended up sick and emailed human resources with his concerns. He was fired the same day he filed the second complaint. He was awarded more than $3.1 million.
Sexual harassment is likely a reason for wrongful termination that you hear the most about. It’s defined as “unwelcome or inappropriate sexual remarks or advancements” in a workplace or outside of the workplace. Sexual harassment can take place at a Christmas party in a restaurant on the other side of town. It can happen at a business conference out of town. It can happen at a meeting with clients in their offices. It’s not limited to your office or place of work. If you file a complaint against a business association for sexual harassment and are fired, it’s a case of wrongful termination.
As an example of a successful wrongful discrimination complaint regarding sexual harassment, an Illinois woman was fired from her position as Community Development Department’s administrator after filing a sexual harassment complaint that went ignored, leading to her refusing to return to the office. The amount of the settlement she accepted has not been disclosed.
Finally, whistleblowing is another type of wrongful termination. If you see something at work that violates someone’s workplace rights, you’re allowed to report it, even if you’re not the victim. Sometimes, the whistleblower is identified and fired for speaking up. This violates the Whistleblower Protection Act.
When a California news station released a report on corruption in a Child and Family Services department, no one knew who had provided the photos and evidence to the news station. What was known was that CFS was placing children into foster homes run by abusive adults. The man who had provided the evidence that showed children in the system facing horrible treatment or abuse was fired. He won a wrongful discrimination lawsuit related to his whistleblowing and was awarded more than $2.5 million.
What Do You Do If You Suspect Wrongful Termination Applies to You?
Do you believe you’re the victim of wrongful termination? You don’t have to take this unfair treatment. Stand up for your rights and seek an expert’s help. Shegerian Conniff believes in you and is here to provide expert advice on the next steps to take. Consultations are free, so don’t hesitate to reach out and see if our employment law attorneys can help you gain the justice you deserve.