The employer-employee relationship has an inherent power imbalance. Knowledge is power, and for employees, understanding certain aspects of employment law is critical to keeping yourself educated and informed.
Unfortunately, wrongful termination is a topic shrouded in misconception and misinformation, causing considerable confusion among employees and employers. Below, we debunk seven myths about wrongful termination to clarify the legal parameters.
Wrongful termination, as defined in employment law, refers to an instance when an employer discharges an employee from their position for illegal reasons or in violation of employment agreements. This discharge typically includes discrimination (termination based on race, gender, religion, age, and other protected classes), retaliation for filing a complaint or claim against the employer, or dismissal in breach of contract terms or labor laws. However, the lack of a reason does not mean you were wrongfully dismissed.
Contrary to popular belief, in most states in the U.S., employment is “at will.” This term means an employer can terminate an employee without providing a specific reason unless an employment contract, policy, or statute states otherwise. However, this term does not give employers a carte blanche to dismiss employees unlawfully.
They cannot terminate an employee for discriminatory reasons or in retaliation for the employee exercising their legal rights, such as reporting a crime within the workplace. While termination without a cited cause may seem unfair, it does not, in and of itself, constitute wrongful termination.
It’s true that discrimination—whether because of race, gender, age, religion, disability, or any other protected class—is a common cause of wrongful termination claims, and it’s certainly illegal. However, wrongful termination encompasses more than just discriminatory practices.
It also includes retaliation, in which an employer fires an employee for exercising their legal rights, like filing a workers’ compensation claim or reporting a violation of workplace laws. Additionally, firing an employee in violation of the terms of an employment contract or contradiction to the company’s written policy is also wrongful termination. While discrimination is a prominent aspect of wrongful termination, it’s not the only basis for these claims.
While it may seem counterintuitive, under certain circumstances an employee who resigns can still bring forth a wrongful termination claim. This concept is known as “constructive dismissal” or “constructive discharge.” In such cases, the employee was not explicitly fired, but their working conditions were made so intolerable due to the employer’s actions that the employee felt compelled to quit.
The employee could potentially have a valid wrongful termination claim if the employer intentionally created these conditions to force the employee to resign, and if the Court deems these actions unlawful. However, proving constructive dismissal requires proving intent, which can be challenging and typically requires compelling evidence.
Although proving retaliation can be complex, it is not impossible, and many successful precedents exist. Retaliation takes place when an employer takes adverse action against an employee as a response to the employee standing up for their rights protected by employment laws. This advocacy could include filing a complaint about discrimination or harassment, whistleblowing about illegal employer practices, or claiming rightful benefits such as workers’ compensation.
Consequently, an employer firing the employee, demoting them, or creating hostile working conditions could be indicators of retaliation. The burden of proof lies with the employee to establish a link between their protected activity and the adverse action.
They can show this link through timing (if the adverse action occurred shortly after the protected activity), evidence of changed treatment, or even through company records and witnesses. Proving retaliation as a cause for wrongful termination can be challenging, once again, due to intent and having to prove correlation, but it’s certainly achievable.
While being terminated from employment can be a difficult and emotionally charged event, the fact that a termination seems unfair does not necessarily make it wrongful in the legal sense. Wrongful termination refers specifically to situations where an employer’s actions violate employment laws, statutes, or the terms of an employment contract. This violation includes instances of discrimination, retaliation, breach of contract, violation of public policy, and more.
However, a termination that an employee merely perceives as unjust, without falling under these legally defined categories, may not qualify as wrongful termination. For example, an employer deciding to let go of an employee due to company downsizing, performance issues, or other legitimate business reasons, no matter how harsh it may seem, would typically not fall under the category of wrongful termination. Employees must be aware of their rights, but it’s equally important to understand the distinction between the personal perception of unfairness and what legally constitutes wrongful termination.
Contrary to this common misconception, independent contractors may sue for wrongful termination under certain circumstances. Though employment law does not consider independent contractors employees and therefore does not protect them in some cases, there are exceptions.
For instance, an independent contractor may receive protection under wrongful termination laws if they were categorically misclassified and are an employee based on the nature of their work. Additionally, they could pursue a claim if an employer fires a contractor as a result of discriminatory practices or in retaliation for asserting their legal rights. Although independent contractors don’t receive the same protections as employees, in some cases, they can still take action against wrongful termination.
Some employers might indeed prefer to settle quickly and quietly to avoid bad publicity, but don’t let anyone tell you that this is a given. The decision to settle largely depends on the specifics of the case and the potential risks the employer perceives. Employers may choose to take the case to court rather than settle if they believe they have a strong defense or if they see the lawsuit as a chance to make a point. You must also remember that employers often have access to considerable legal resources, which may make them more inclined to fight a claim rather than opt for a quick settlement. Don’t assume a lawsuit will lead to a quick and easy resolution—each case is unique, and a multitude of factors can influence the outcome.
Wrongful termination is a complex and nuanced legal issue that many often misunderstand. Although we debunked seven myths about wrongful termination above, you may still have questions about what constitutes wrongful termination.
Contact the Law Firm of Tamara N. Holder today if you believe your employer has wrongfully terminated you. As an experienced and devoted employment dispute lawyer, Tamara Holder will do everything she can to ensure you get the legal representation and justice you deserve.