What Makes a Job Termination “Wrongful?”
Updated: Jul 3, 2019
People who are fired or laid off from a job often feel their termination was "wrongful," especially if it was done without cause. Unfortunately, getting fired without a reason can happen to just about anyone. The reason for this is that many employees are hired under what is called “at-will” employment.
Employment relationships are presumed to be "at-will" in all U.S. states except Montana. Unless there is a contract or employment agreement, both the employer and the employee are free to end the relationship at any time, with or without advance notice or explanation. However, "wrongful termination" is a major exception to at-will employment.
“Wrongful termination” is a clearly defined act according to the law: it applies to situations where an employer has let an employee go for reasons that are illegal. There are no specific laws that provide protection for employees who have been fired unjustly, unless the termination or other “adverse employment action” is based on an employee's race, gender, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or some other reasons that may be covered by federal or state laws prohibiting discrimination.
Contract law may cover a wrongful termination if the company breached an employment agreement or if their policy includes guidelines for termination and they failed to follow them. For example, if an employee’s contract stipulates that he or she cannot be fired for coming to work late and they are then let go for this reason, the termination would be a breach of contract and classified legally as a wrongful termination.
Other reasons that could be interpreted as wrongful termination include being fired for filing a complaint or claim against the employer or for refusing to commit an illegal act when asked by the employer or because the employee sought workers compensation benefits. In addition, if an employee feels he or she was forced to leave a job because the employer made it unbearable, he or she may file a wrongful termination suit for constructive discharge in some cases
Some of these violations carry statutory penalties, while others may result in an employer paying for damages based on the terminated employee's lost wages and other expenses. Other wrongful termination cases may require the employer to pay punitive damages and/or attorney’s fees to the former employee.
If you have lost your job for what you believe may be an unlawful reason, you may have a right to bring a wrongful termination claim against your employer.
Before you take action, it is important that you understand your rights. The company’s Human Resources department should be able to answer questions and tell you what benefits you are eligible for, but remember that the HR Department is not your friend as the people who work there work for their employer. But do not hesitate to ask why you were terminated and request to see your personnel file. Review your employment contract if you have one, and gather any evidence of specific promises your employer may have made. Be sure to get copies of all written agreements regarding your termination. And consult an attorney before signing any “separation agreement” in which you agree to waive your legal rights in return for a severance payment.
The next step is to determine what recourse you may have. If you have been discriminated against or haven't been treated according to the law or company policy, the U.S. Department of Labor can provide information on the laws that regulate employment and advice on where and how to file a claim. Your state department of labor also may have information on local regulations.
Employment regulations in New Jersey can be complicated. An attorney who is experienced in employment law will help you understand your rights, determine if you have a valid claim and make the best possible decisions about how to proceed. Do not hesitate to call me at 973-509-8500 x213 or email LFarber@LFarberLaw.com.
The contents of this writing are intended for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion in any specific facts or circumstances