Wrongful Termination Law

What is Wrongful Termination Law?

Wrongful termination law provides the rules for determining whether the firing of an employee was proper, and the remedies available if it was not. This area of the law is primarily concerned with violations of express or implied employment contracts. In other words, these cases focus on whether the employer was free to let the employee go, or if the termination was contrary to an agreement between the employer and the employee. While discrimination in the workplace based on sex, race, national origin, and other such characteristics can certainly lead to wrongful termination, those types of claims are usually classified as a separate legal topic known as Title VII law (because they are based on protections found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964).

The "Employment at Will" Doctrine

At the center of nearly all wrongful termination controversies is the employment at will doctrine. Adopted by most states, this doctrine creates a presumption that employers and employees are not bound to the employment relationship by anything more than their voluntary desire to continue the relationship. Either one may end the employment at any time, with or without cause. This is in stark contrast to the law in other countries, which requires employers to have a sufficient reason for terminating an employee.

Even in the United States, however, the doctrine has been tempered in some jurisdictions by a "good faith and fair dealing" provision that prohibits employers from taking advantage of an employee's at-will status. For example, an employer could be held liable for firing a worker on the eve of a bonus merely to avoid paying the bonus. It is also important to understand that the employment at will doctrine is only a presumption. It can be overcome by evidence of an agreement that either party was not free to terminate the employment in the absence of just cause, or for a specific period of time, or without following certain disciplinary procedures, etc.

Sometimes an employer will enter into written contracts with workers expressly stating the terms and conditions of employment. Clearly, the provisions of such a contract will supersede the employment at will doctrine. But other times, an employer may simply make verbal statements on the subject. If employees justifiably rely on the statements as a promise of continued employment, an implied employment contract has been created by operation of law. Similarly, employers may unintentionally create a contract by distributing employee handbooks or other documents setting forth company policy relating to termination.

Consider the example of a boss who grows tired of her workers arriving to work late. She passes out a memo explaining that any worker who is tardy three times will be fired. The very next morning a worker arrives late. Despite the fact that the worker had previously been late only once, the boss terminates the worker, stating that she has a right to do so pursuant to the employment at will doctrine. The boss's assertion is incorrect. By passing out the memo, she created an implied employment contract, and the worker can bring a claim for wrongful termination.

Actual vs. Constructive Discharge

In the field of wrongful termination law, it is quite common for an employer's conduct to take on legal significance that the employer did not intend. In fact, an employer may even terminate an employee without realizing it. When an employer causes working conditions to become so intolerable that an employee quits in response, the employee's resignation will be treated as a termination. This is known as a constructive discharge. If the employee had a contractual right to continued employment, the employer can be held liable. The concept of a constructive discharge is really just a way for the legal system to hold employers accountable when they try to get rid of employees in a disingenuous manner.

Pursuing a Wrongful Termination Claim

Those who believe they may have a claim for wrongful termination must first understand that statutes of limitation apply to these cases. Statutes of limitation are rules regarding how much time may pass between an employee's discharge and the initiation of a lawsuit. Thus, by waiting to speak with an attorney, claimants may become ineligible for relief. Furthermore, it is often necessary to submit a claim to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before filing a lawsuit. These and other procedural issues can become problems for anyone unfamiliar with wrongful termination law. As with any complex legal matter, retaining an attorney is highly recommended.

Contact an Attorney to Learn More

If you have been fired from your job in a way that seems unfair, you may have a right to financial compensation or other relief. To learn if you can bring a claim, gather all documentation you have relating to the incident, and schedule a visit with an employment lawyer near you.

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