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Examples of Wrongful Termination: Was Your Firing Against the Law?

With 80 million individuals employed in the private sector of the American economy, only 20 million of these individuals belong to a union protected by unfair dismissal by collective settlement agreements, the remaining 60 million are employed "at will." These "at will" employees can be let go for any reason, even a bad one, and for no reason at all.

The magnitude of this problem is colossal. Almost two million "at will" staff members are fired each year, and when unbiased arbitrators review the decisions for termination, over half of them are found to be unjustified. Experts think that over 150,000 people are unjustly fired each year.

While numerous people who are let go from their job feel as though their termination was "wrongful," especially if they were fired without cause, the legal meaning of wrongful termination is extremely specific. To be "wrongfully terminated," one must be fired for an illegal reason, which can include a violation of federal anti-discrimination laws or a breach of contract. Although most employment is "at will," there are some exceptions to the rule that might help keep you from being let go or suing your former employer for wrongful termination.

Documented Promises

When you start a new job, you almost always sign a contract. This contract usually consists of the following:

  • Name and address of employer and employee
  • Start date
  • Date contract will apply from
  • Continuous services date
  • When the contract is expected to end (if it is temporary or fixed-term)
  • Job title 
  • Brief description of duties
  • Place of work
  • Hours of work
  • Pay – how often and when
  • Holiday entitlement
  • Sick time and personal time off pay
  • Notice period
  • Pension arrangements
  • Disciplinary and grievance procedures (or explanation on where to find information about these)
  • And more.

If you have this written agreement or another document that promises you job security, you have a firm argument that you are not an at-will employee. For example, if the arrangement you possess states that you can only be fired with good cause or for reasons that are defined in the agreement. You could also have an offer letter or other written paperwork that makes promises about your continued employment. If this is the case, you may be able to execute these promises in a court of law.

Implied Promises

The existence of an implied employment contract, an agreement based on things that were said or done by your employer, is another exception to the at-will rule. Regrettably, this can be difficult to prove because numerous employers are careful not to make any guarantees of continued employment. However, implied contacts have been demonstrated where employers guaranteed a "permanent employment" or work for a specified amount of time. These implied contracts detailed particular types of progressive discipline in an employee handbook. When figuring out whether an implied employment contract exists, the court will look at various details, consisting of:

  • Duration of employment 
  • History of positive performance reviews
  • If your employer violated a standard employment practice in firing you (like neglecting to give a required warning)
  • Whether promises of long-term employment were promised when hired
  • Regularity of job promotions
  • Assurances that you would have continued employment

Violation of Good Faith And Fair Dealing

If an employer acts unfairly, you probably have a claim for a breach of duty of good faith and fair dealing. The duty of good faith and fair dealing means that parties cannot avert the spirit of the bargain, lack diligence or slack off, perform incorrectly on purpose, abuse their power when defining the terms of an agreement, or interfere with or fail to cooperate in the other party's performance In court, it has been found that companies breached the duty of good faith and fair dealing by:

  • Transferring or firing an employee so they could not collect sales commissions
  • Falsely leading employees to believe they have a chance for promotions or wage increases
  • Making up reasons for firing an employee when the real reason was to replace them with someone who will work for lower pay
  • Down-playing the bad aspects of a job, like the need to travel through dangerous neighborhoods late at night
  • Continuously transferring an employee to remote, dangerous, or undesirable assignments in hopes the employee will quit without collecting severance pay or other benefits usually due after termination

Some states do not recognize the "good faith and fair dealing" exception to an at-will employee. Other states require that a reasonable employment contract exists before a terminated employee sues for a breach of good faith and fair dealing. 

Violation of Public Policy

Public policy can be defined as a system of laws, regulatory procedures, strategies, and financing priorities concerning a given topic advertised by a governmental entity or its agents. It is unlawful to violate public policy when firing an employee for reasons society recognizes as illegal grounds for termination.

Before a wrongful termination case based on the violation of public policy will be allowed, numerous courts require that there be a specific law setting out the policy. Many state and federal laws have identified employment-related actions that clearly violate public policy, like letting an employee go for: 

  • Disclosing a company practice of refusing to pay employees their earned commissions and accrued vacation pay
  • Taking time off of work to vote
  • Taking time off of work to serve on a jury
  • Serving in the military or National Guard
  • Informing authorities about wrongdoing that is harmful to the public (whistle-blowing)

Some states will protect employees from being terminated for specific reasons, such as serving as an election officer or volunteer firefighter. Some courts have also determined that a company cannot fire you because you took advantage of a legal remedy or exercised a legal right, like filing a workers' compensation claim or reporting any infraction of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Act).


Employers are not allowed to fire at-will employees for unlawful reasons, and discrimination is illegal. If you think that your termination was because of your color, race, national origin, gender, age, religious views, disability, pregnancy, hereditary information, or more, you should seek immediate advice from an experienced attorney. There are strict limits (statutes of limitations) that apply to discrimination claims, such as submitting a complaint of discrimination with a state or federal agency prior to being able to sue an employer in court. 


In extreme cases, an employer's actions when letting an employee go become so devious that they result in fraud. Fraud is commonly discovered throughout the recruiting process, where promises are made and broken or leading up to the final states of employment (such as a staff member being coaxed into resigning).

In order to show that your termination was because of fraud, you need to be able to show the following:

  • Your employer made a false representation
  • Someone in charge knew of the false representation
  • Your employer intended to mislead you (or tried to persuade you to depend on the representation)
  • You relied on the representation
  • Your dependence on the representation harmed you

The toughest part of proving fraud is showing that the company acted poorly on purpose in an attempt to trick you deliberately. Establishing this requires adequate documents of how, when, to whom, and by what means the false representations were made. 


A defamation lawsuit is meant to protect an individual's reputation and good standing in the neighborhood. To show that defamation was the reason you were let go, you should be able to show that in the process of termination, your previous company made incorrect and spiteful statements about you that damaged your possibilities of finding another job. To sue for defamation, you need to be able to prove that your previous company:

  • Made an incorrect statement about you
  • Made the statement despite you (knowing that it was not accurate or with careless disregard to its deceitfulness)
  • Told or wrote that statement to at least one other person
  • Harmed you by communicating the statement—causing you to lose your job or preventing you from getting another one

To win a defamation case, you must be able to prove that the unkind words were more than just gossip. True defamation must be factual information, and it likewise needs to be false.

Whistle-Blowing Violations

Whistle-blowing happens when a staff member reports any prohibited conduct at work that is not related to workplace rights. For example, you would be a whistleblower if you report your company is manipulating financial information to make their monetary results look better than they are, engaging in investor fraud, producing malfunctioning, dangerous, or mislabeled products, or lying on their tax returns.

Laws regarding whistle-blowing protect staff members who report suspicious activity that is unlawful or will harm the general public. Some states protect whistle-blowers who state that their employer broke the law, regulation, or mandate at all. Other states provide employers whistle-blower protection only when they report that their employer broke particular laws, such as labor laws or environmental regulations.

What Type of Lawsuit Should You File If you Experience Wrongful Termination?  

If you have experienced wrongful termination in the workplace, then you should submit an employment law claim. This kind of claim happens when a worker experiences illegal behavior from their employer. The employer’s behavior might include discrimination or unjust labor practices. If you have ever experienced wrongful termination, sexual harassment, employer retaliation, wage violations, etc., then you may be entitled to compensation with an employment law claim. Many individuals experience these wrongdoings and are afraid to speak up against their employer. There are other types of employment law claims besides wrongful termination. These consist of family and medical leave act violations, workplace sexual harassment, employer retaliation, wage and hour violations, and workplace harassment.

Violation of The Family And Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The Family and Medical Leave Act entitle eligible staff members of covered employers to take unpaid leave or job-protected leave for particular family and medical reasons. These reasons could consist of being ill, taking care of a loved one who is ill, or taking care or bonding with a newborn baby. Staff members have the legal right to return to work and be free from retaliation for departing.

Staff members are eligible for FMLA leave if they have been employed at their workplace for a minimum of one year and for at least 1,250 hours. These eligible employees can receive up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month duration for the following reasons:

  • Birth and care for a newborn baby within one year of birth
  • Placement with an employee of a child for adoption or foster care and to care for the newly placed child within a year of placement
  • Caring for an employee’s spouse, child, or parent who has a severe medical condition
  • A severe medical condition that prevents an employee from performing the essential functions of their job
  • Any qualifying need stemming from the fact that the employee’s spouse, child, or parent is a covered military member on “covered active duty”

Eligible workers can receive up to twenty-six workweeks of leave throughout a 12-month duration to take care of a covered military member with a serious injury or health problem if the eligible staff member is the cover military member's spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin (military caregiver leave).

If you have been let go due to taking family or medical leave to which you were entitled under the law, you most likely have an employment law claim

Sexual Harassment and Hostile Work Environment

Sexual harassment happens when an employee experiences unwelcomed sexual advances, verbal or physical harassment of sexual nature, or is asked for sexual favors. In some businesses, sexual harassment has become so prominent and ingrained into the culture that it frequently results in a hostile workplace where staff members struggle to be productive and successfully do their job. Regrettably, in many cases, employees are required to quit because they can no longer endure the harassment.

Victims of workplace sexual harassment can be male or female, and the harasser can be an employer, manager, colleague, or even someone external like a client or customer. Workplace sexual harassment should never ever be allowed. If you have been sexually harassed while at work and think that you were let go because of it, as retaliation for complaining about it, or had to quit your job because of it, you need to file an employment law claim


Employers are not permitted to retaliate against staff members who have engaged in particular legally protected activities. Retaliation can consist of any negative job action, such as demotion, discipline, firing, reduction in wage, or job/shift reassignment. However, retaliation can also be more subtle. To prove that the reason you were let go was because of your employer's retaliation, you need to be able to prove the following:

  • You were involved in a legally protected activity such as filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or in the process of formally complaining to your employer about discrimination or harassment
  • The legally protected activity triggered your employer to act maliciously towards you—for instance, you were dismissed right after your employer became aware that you were filing a charge of sexual harassment against them
  • Your employer’s action had unfavorable consequences for you—for instance, you were terminated, denied a promotion, or given a bad performance review that was unjustified

As long as the employer's negative action would discourage a sensible individual in the scenario from making a complaint, it constitutes illegal retaliation.

Wage and Hour Disputes

The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (WHD) is accountable for handling and implementing some of the nation's most essential employee protection laws. WHD is committed to guaranteeing that this country's employees are adequately paid and for all the hours they work, regardless of immigration status. Wage and hour violations occur when a company fails to follow state laws that remain in concern to restricting the amount of time a staff member can work or their compensation for exceeding that limit. Although laws vary from state to state, they can cover base pay, overtime payment, lunch and rest breaks, and any damages due to a staff member when these policies were neglected. Some common examples of wage and hour disputes include:

  • Management takes any amount of tips that you earned
  • Your earnings are less than the minimum wage set for your state
  • Your employer makes you skip lunch or rest breaks
  • You were denied overtime because you were misclassified as a manager
  • You are forced to work around the clock with no overtime pay

If you are filing an employment law claim because of a wage and hour violation, it is essential to gather paperwork, including pay stubs, employment contract, company policies, and other documentation to help support your claim.

Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment takes place when an employer interacts with a staff member that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, or the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. An employer's, manager's, or colleague's adverse conduct can be based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, older age, disability, or genetic information. This kind of harassment becomes illegal when the unfavorable behavior becomes a condition of continued employment or is bad enough to create a work environment that is so unsettling it is considered hostile or abusive. The adverse behavior can consist of crude jokes, slurs, intimidation, ridicule, offensive insults, physical threats, and even assaults. Workplace harassment can occur in a variety of scenarios, consisting of:

  • The harasser is the victim’s manager, a manager in another department, an agent of the employer, a co-worker, or a non-employee
  • The victim does not have to be directly harassed but can be anyone who was offended by the conduct
  • Unlawful harassment can occur without economic injury to or the discharge of the victim

If you have been harassed while at work and believe that you were let go because of it, as retaliation for complaining about it, or quitting your job because of it, you ought to file an employment law claim.

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