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Workplace Fairness Weekly

Workplace Fairness Weekly (1/21/19)

Topic of the Week  What is Wrongful Termination?

  • What is wrongful termination?
  • What is at-will employment?
  • Does discrimination fall under wrongful termination?
  • What is an employment contract?

What is considered an wrongful termination?

“Wrongful termination” is a phrase that is often misused and may be confusing. People often believe that they have a lawsuit for wrongful termination any time they have been fired unjustly. However, wrongful termination from a legal perspective describes a situation in which the employer violates a specific law, public policy, or the terms of an employment contract by firing you. Many of those laws have their own enforcement mechanisms, and so a separate legal claim for wrongful termination may not be necessary. There is no federal law against wrongful termination, and therefore what is considered to be “wrongful termination” will vary by state, with some states not recognizing a separate legal claim for wrongful termination at all. If your employer has not violated a law, public policy or employment contract, then your employment is most likely “at-will employment” and your termination alone does not violate the law or give you a right to go to court.

What is at-will employment?

At-will employment refers to the legal principle applicable to most private workplaces in the United States. At-will employment means that the employer or the employee can end the employment at any time, with or without advance notice, and for any reason--or no reason--at all. Wrongful termination is a very limited exception to at-will employment. 

Can discrimination be considered wrongful termination?

Yes. Since discrimination on the basis of specific protected categories violates federal and/or state law, being terminated for that reason is being terminated for an illegal reason. If you can show that you were terminated based on your race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, pregnancy, or age (or other legally protected categories), your termination could be considered wrongful termination. Most states have their own enforcement mechanism for discrimination cases, and are therefore not brought as wrongful termination cases.  

 What is considered an employment contract?

A termination may be wrongful if it violates an employment contract. However, most employment in the private sector is at-will, as discussed above, and is not performed under a contract. A contract may be written or oral, and express or implied.

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