Although it’s no secret that specific kinds of discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation are unlawful, it’s not always easy for a worker to know whether they have been a victim of wrongful termination or not. Reviewing the answers to commonly asked questions about wrongful termination provided below is an excellent way to begin processing the basics of this area of law:
- What Is Wrongful Termination?
- What Reasons for Termination Are Unlawful?
- What Does it Mean to Be Laid Off?
- Is Being Laid Off the Same as Being Discharged?
- What About Quitting?
- What Should I Do if I’ve Been Terminated Unfairly?
However, it’s important to note that this area of law is complex, nuanced, and case-specific, and it may be difficult for a worker to process their employment law situation beyond familiarizing themselves with these basics. It is precisely because this area of employment law is both complicated and impacted by the context that anyone who believes that they may have been unlawfully terminated, even if they aren’t sure that they have grounds for legal action, should connect with an experienced employment attorney. A confidential consultation with an employment attorney will allow you to understand your rights under the law and to determine whether you’re in a position to hold your employer accountable for wrongful termination.
What Is Wrongful Termination?
Many Americans understandably believe that if they are at-will employees, they can be fired at any time, for any reason. At-will employees can be fired at any time for lawful reasons, even if these reasons are unjust, unreasonable, and/or stupid. However, it’s important to understand that even if you’re classified as an at-will employee, you cannot be lawfully fired or laid off for unlawful reasons. When an employee is fired or laid off for illegal reasons, this turn of events is commonly referred to as “wrongful termination.” These unlawful reasons may include discrimination or harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, retaliation under the False Claims Act, and a variety of other behaviors governed by federal, state, and/or local laws. For example, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act make firing or laying off a worker based on their sexual orientation illegal.
What Reasons for Termination are Unlawful?
Most of the time, wrongful termination cases are brought by employees who have been fired or laid off due to discrimination, harassment, and/or retaliation. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, and other statutes render the discrimination based on the following characteristics unlawful in the workplace:
- Genetic Information
- National Origin
- Sex (Sexual harassment is illegal as a result of this classification)
- Sexual Orientation
Additionally, the False Claims Act, all of the discrimination laws noted above, the Family Medical Leave Act, and a variety of federal, state, and local laws also make retaliation illegal. Employer retaliation is the act of punishing an employee for engaging in a legally protected act. Retaliation may be as subtle as a job title change and as blatant as wrongful termination. Legally protected leave of absence acts include, but are not limited to:
- Activities related to status as a crime victim
- Caring for a newborn or newly adopted child
- Caring for an ill loved one
- Jury duty
- Managing a serious personal health condition
- Maternity leave
- Military service
- Participating in a substance treatment program
- Providing testimony as a witness
- Recovering from an injurious accident
- Recovering from bone marrow or organ donation
- Service as a volunteer first responder or reservist
Many employers utilize “at-will” employment, meaning that they can let employees go at any time. However, at-will policies do not remove the employer’s responsibility to act legally. Under both California state laws and federal laws, employers cannot terminate employees who:
- File a claim for workers’ compensation
- Take legally protected time off such as time for jury duty, medical or family leave, or time for military service
- File a discrimination claim with HR or state or federal authorities
- Refuse requests for sexual, financial, or personal favors in exchange for a promotion or raise
- Refuse to engage in illegal activities of any kind
- Join a union and participate in union activities
- Notify government agencies or proper authorities of potential workplace safety hazards that have been ignored
- Report suspected illegal activities on the part of a co-worker, manager, or the company itself to the proper authorities (whistleblowing)
Firing an employee outright or letting him or her go after any of the above scenarios would violate that employee’s rights. If you were given a termination notice after undertaking any of the above actions, our Wrongful Termination lawyer can help you navigate the legal process to hold your employer accountable.
This typically involves filing a claim with the proper agency, such as the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) or OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). It could also mean filing a civil lawsuit in court. Wrongful Termination Attorney Mr. Eldessouky will guide you through each step, ensuring your concerns are fairly represented and your rights upheld.
Is Being Laid Off the Same as Being Discharged?
When a company lays off employees, it terminates their employment as a matter of business strategy. This kind of termination stands in contrast with “firing” (also commonly referred to as being “discharging”) an employee due to that worker’s behavior. Firing/discharging an employee is an action allegedly based on the worker’s poor performance or other suspicious behavior, whereas laying off an employee is the termination of their employment through no fault of the worker.
Both firing and laying off employees can be illegal and therefore treated as grounds for wrongful termination claims if a specific employee’s position was terminated for any of the unlawful reasons noted above. Again, it can be difficult to know at first glance whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination case, which is one of the reasons why it’s important to speak with an employment lawyer before making any assumptions about your case. An employer may insist that they are laying you off for business reasons, but the underlying reason for your termination could be unlawful. For example, some workers have had success arguing that they were targeted for layoffs due to their age in violation of the federal Older Workers Benefit Protection Act.
Getting Fired, Discharged, or Laid Off Versus Quitting
Sometimes, employers who have created an unlawful hostile work environment or are aiming to wrongfully terminate an employee will allow them the choice to quit instead of firing/discharging them or laying them off. This option may seem enticing because it allows workers to avoid having to admit to future employers that they were fired or laid off. Additionally, some employers may offer attractive severance packages and/or other benefits to workers who quit voluntarily. It’s important to understand that even if you’re being asked to quit voluntarily (or you quit a hostile work environment voluntarily) that you may still have grounds for legal action. If possible, don’t agree to quit until you’ve spoken with an experienced employment attorney. Quitting may limit your legal options, especially if you sign away your right to sue in exchange for a severance package, and/or limit your access to financial benefits such as unemployment.
If you’ve already quit, know that you may have grounds for a hostile work environment claim. Hostile work environments are illegal, per the terms of discrimination and harassment laws including those noted above. In a hostile work environment, discrimination and/or harassment make it so uncomfortable for an employee that it may impact their ability to do their job. This uncomfortable work environment may cause workers to quit, although this is not always the case. For example, two Seattle City Light workers were awarded more than $1 million in damages due to the hostile work environment they suffered on account of their race. The workers were not compelled to quit, but the work environment was so hostile regardless that they were able to hold their employer accountable for the harm they had suffered.
What to Do When You’ve Been Terminated Unfairly
If you’ve either been wrongfully terminated (discharged or laid off) or compelled to quit due to discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or retaliation, it’s important to contact an employment attorney as soon as you possibly can. The experienced team at Eldessouky Law can explain your rights under the law and help you make an informed decision about taking legal action. This area of law is complex and case-specific. Therefore, you’ll want to resist the temptation to make assumptions that you don’t have grounds for a case before you’ve connected with a legal professional. Speak with Mr. Eldessouky first so that you can know for sure whether you’re empowered to hold your employer accountable for unlawful termination. Consultations are confidential and risk-free, so you have nothing to lose and potentially much to gain by speaking with an attorney. The sooner the team at Eldessouky Law learns about your specific circumstances, the sooner we can begin building a strong case on your behalf.