Right now, vast layoffs are making headlines every single day. Millions of Americans have been shown the door in the last few weeks alone – most with little to no notice.
Getting fired or laid off is a part of life in part because all U.S. states follow at-will employment, employers are allowed to fire you for almost any reason. However, the federal government holds exceptions that prevent you from discrimination.
And if you live in a state with an implied contract exemption or a good-faith exemption, then you may have more protections.
Are you out of a job and wondering if you have a case for unlawful termination? Here’s what you need to know.
What is Unlawful Termination?
Wrongful termination occurs in very specific circumstances laid out either in anti-discrimination law or contract law. It may also violate your states’ employment law.
Federal anti-discrimination laws provide protection for employees to prevent them from being fired based on their:
- Race or ethnicity
- Sex or gender
- National origin
- Genetic information
For example, an employer can’t fire a woman who gets pregnant simply because she’s pregnant. They must have a valid work-related reason for terminating her employment.
Some states also offer protection based on:
- Sexual preference (both real or perceived)
- Gender identity or expression (both real or perceived)
- Marital status
- Military status
- Political activity (off-duty)
Additionally, if your contract says that your employer must provide a reason to terminate you, and they cannot, then you might be experiencing wrongful termination.
Very few cases count as wrongful termination unless they meet these circumstances. Why?
Because the vast majority of people in the United States are employed “at will.” At will gives your employer the right to fire you whenever they want or for whatever reason they want. They can also fire you without a reason.
What Signs Suggest You Were Fired Illegally?
Wrongful termination is rarely the first step. Very often, people who are fired this way experience a long period of retaliation or discrimination at work. Most people who get fired in this way see it coming.
In some cases, wrongful termination is blatantly obvious. Not all employers are savvy enough to pretend they aren’t firing you for a protected reason.
However, sometimes the act is more insidious.
For example, if you refuse to accept lower pay or work longer hours than other people in your position and you’re fired, then you may be facing gender or race discrimination.
You also can’t be fired if you were acting as a whistleblower or if you recently made a complaint. No employer can fire you for whistleblowing as it’s considered retaliation.
Essentially, if you have any doubt that you might have been fired because of who you are, then you might have a case.
How Should You Proceed if You’re Terminated Wrongfully?
If you believe your former employer violated the law when they fire you, you have several legal options available to you. But before you call anyone, follow these three steps.
The first thing you need to do is to remain calm. Although this can be difficult after experiencing a tense working relationship, it’s important that you don’t say or do anything that might give your employer cover both during and immediately after your termination.
Second, you should ask for a letter that describes the reason your employer let you go. It’s also a good idea to keep records of emails with your former managers, colleagues, and anyone in HR. These can document any discrimination or retaliation that existed before you got fired.
Third, you should sit down and write your version of events. If you’re reading this at a time when you’re worried about being fired, start taking notes now so you have a contemporaneous record of events to present.
When Should You Sue for Wrongful Termination?
If you’re fired for a protected reason, then you have the option to pursue legal action against your employer. What happens next depends on what kind of discrimination you faced.
You may need to follow different procedures based on whether the act was a violation of the Equal Pay Act, the Americans with Disability Act, or a violation of your contract.
Unfortunately, you need to decide whether you want to sue rather quickly. You typically have 180-300 days to initiate a charge against your former employer. A wrongful termination attorney can help you determine these first steps.
However, the issue of “can you sue” doesn’t always make it clear when a lawsuit is a good idea. Even in the face of overt discrimination, you need to determine whether your goal for the suit is realistic and whether you have the time, money, and energy to invest in a lawsuit.
Cases tend to drain complainants of all three of these resources, so it’s important to know what you’re up against and whether you think you’ll achieve a reasonable resolution for the cost.
While only you know the answers to these questions, a lawyer like Amini & Conant can also help you discuss your goals and options.
How Will You Handle an Unlawful Firing?
While employers have the option to fire you for almost any reason, they cannot fire you as an act of discrimination or retaliation.
It’s illegal to fire you because of your race, gender, age, or religion, and it’s also illegal to fire you for blowing the whistle on discrimination or other illegal or unethical behaviors.
Unfortunately, employers still try to hide behind the “at-will” law to cover their tracks, even when their true intentions are obvious or even well documented.
If you are the victim of unlawful termination, then you have options, even if you feel powerless. Be sure to read through the resources offered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and contact an employment attorney to learn more about what you can do next.
Did you find this article helpful? Learn more about how the law affects you in our Consumer archive.