If you have been fired from your job, you may ask yourself if you can sue your employer. The short answer is yes. But a better question is do you have grounds to sue your employer. The answer to that question is “it depends.”
Wrongful termination takes many forms such as breach of contract, retaliation, or violation of discrimination laws or company policy. If you believe you were fired for an illegal (or wrongful) reason, you have a few options including filing a lawsuit.
What is Wrongful Termination?
In the United States, “Most employment is “at will,” which means an employee may be fired at any time and for any reason or for no reason at all (as long as the reason is not illegal).”
Although employers have the right to fire you, they must be in compliance with local, state and federal laws regarding “at will” termination. These laws prohibit companies from firing employees illegally while also allowing employees to seek remediation for wrongful termination.
Legal Reasons for Termination
Companies often have several legitimate reasons for ending a person’s employment. These reasons include the following:
- Poor job performance or incompetence
- Unprofessional behavior or misconduct at work
- Theft or other criminal activities at work
- Attendance issues such as chronic lateness or frequent absences Insubordination
- Violating company policies or rules
- Discriminatory behavior in the workplace such as sexual harassment
- Physical violence, or threats towards another employee or management
- Damaging company property
- Using alcohol or drugs in the workplace
- Not being a team player by not getting along with colleagues
Company layoffs are a legitimate reason to fire someone. But there are numerous other reasons why people can get fired. A few examples include lying on your resume or your job application, falsifying company documents, using company property or equipment for personal business, or posting unsuitable comments on social media websites.
Illegal Reasons for Termination
Discrimination is one of the most flagrant violations and examples of illegal or wrongful termination. The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) lists several types of discrimination that occur in the workplace including the following:
- National origin
At this time discrimination against sexual orientation is not considered illegal by the federal government unless you’re employed in the public sector. However, many local, county, and state governments and many companies do consider members of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning/queer) community to be a protected class of people, so it’s illegal to discriminate against them in the workplace.
Besides discrimination, retaliation is another illegal reason for firing an employee covered by the EEOC. There are situations in which a person may be fired for retaliation for such actions as:
- Filing a complaint with OSHA about workplace safety violations
- Refusing to take a lie detector test
- Filing a workers compensation claim when injured on the job
- Being a whistle blower
- Filing a complaint with Human Resources about discrimination, harassment, wage violations, etc. in the workplace
- Complaining about the employer’s illegal conduct
- Exercising a “legal right (such as voting or taking family leave)”
Breach of an employment contract is another illegal way to fire someone.
Options for a Wrongful Termination
To determine if you were the victim of wrongful termination, you have to ask yourself a few questions before you consider your options. Were you fired for cause? Were you aware of any behaviors or actions that could result in your termination? Is there an employee handbook that details the company’s expectations? Did you sign a document stating that you understood your job responsibilities and the reasons for possible termination? Also, some employers ask employees to sign a “release” or severance agreement when they are fired to prevent them from suing later. Did you sign one of these agreements?
If you still feel your firing was due to discrimination or retaliation, you can file a complaint with the EEOC. After providing the required documentation, the EEOC investigates your case and makes a determination. The government agency will send you one of two letters. The Dismissal and Notice of Rights letter means that the agency doesn’t think your employer violated laws, but you are still able to file a lawsuit.
The Letter of Determination means that the EEOC believes you have grounds for a lawsuit. This letter is sent to both you and your employer in the hopes you can reach an out-of-court agreement. If that is not possible, the EEOC then sends you a Right to Sue letter which means that there are grounds for a lawsuit.
Whatever type of letter you receive from the EEOC, you have only 90 days from the date of that letter to file a wrongful termination or discrimination lawsuit.
Filing a Lawsuit
You need an experienced employment lawyer at your side if you want to successfully file a lawsuit, whether you were wrongfully terminated due to discrimination, retaliation, or for other illegal reason.
There are many online attorney directories to help you locate an attorney by state. You can also contact your local American Bar Association for referrals. Once you have a list of candidates, you need to create a shortlist and interview each one in person before making a selection. You need an attorney who is a good fit and has the necessary experience.
What Will the Outcome Be?
In a wrongful termination lawsuit, there are a few outcomes if you win.
- Back pay
- A settlement for punitive or compensatory damages
One or all three can occur if you’re successful.
Wrongful termination lawsuits are usually challenging. Before moving forward with either the EEOC or a lawsuit, it’s probably best to get impartial advice from a knowledgeable labor law attorney. The attorney can adequately assess your situation and offer you the best advice about whether you can successfully sue your employer for firing you.