What Is Wrongful Termination?

What Is Wrongful Termination

Under certain circumstances, an employee’s termination by his or her employer may be a wrongful termination. If the employer terminated the employee for an illegal reason, the employee may have grounds to sue despite the fact that employers generally have significant discretion concerning the hiring and firing of their workers. In order for an employee’s firing to be a wrongful termination, it must be one that is illegal under the law. This may include violating employment agreements, state laws or federal laws. For example, firing someone because he or she is of a different race would violate both state and federal civil rights laws. If you have been fired for an illegal reason, the employment law attorneys at Swartz Swidler may be able to help you recover damages.

Employment-at-will and the limitations to it

At-will employment is the most common type of work. It means that a person’s employment may be terminated at any time and for any reason by the employer’s will. The reason does not have to be a good one, and employers do not have to provide any warning or go through fair procedures. All states, excepting Montana, presume that employment is at-will unless evidence exists to the contrary. An example is an employment contract in which for-cause terminations are specified as the only allowed firing types.

There are multiple exceptions to at-will termination. An employer may not fire a person in violation of his or her employment contract, for instance. An employer is also forbidden to terminate an employee for reasons that are based on discrimination because of the employee’s protected status under state, local or federal law. An employer is also prohibited from firing employees in order to retaliate against them for reporting certain types of illegal activity such as violating hour and wage laws. When an employer fires an employee for any of the prohibited reasons, the termination is a wrongful one.

Discriminatory terminations

Among the most common types of wrongful termination occurs when an employee is fired based on discriminatory reasons such as his or her gender instead of his or her performance. Workers are protected under federal law from being penalized or fired for certain reasons that are discriminatory. These include being fired based on his or her race, national origin, color, sex, disability, religion, age and disability.

People who have been terminated or penalized based on a discriminatory reason are allowed to file a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as well as the corresponding state agencies. It is important for employees to act quickly when they have been wrongfully terminated. Wrongful termination claims have strict statutes of limitations and have to be filed with the EEOC and appropriate state agencies before any further legal remedy can be pursued.


Employees are also protected when they engage in specified activities. These include reporting workplace sexual harassment or discrimination, filing discrimination charges with the EEOC, participating in a wage and hour investigation or taking allowed medical leave. There are a number of whistleblower laws that protect employees for reporting illegal or hazardous acts committed by their employers, including violating safety laws and environmental regulations.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania both prohibit employers from firing employees in violation of the public policies of the states. These prohibitions include employees being fired for serving in the military or the National Guard, sitting on a jury or taking time off from work to vote.

Termination in violation of employment contracts

When workers are fired in a manner that violates the terms of their employment agreements, the employers who fired them may have committed wrongful terminations. Employment contracts that promise that the employer will follow specific procedures leading up to termination, regular promotions and job security are evidence that the employment was contractual rather than at will. If specific discipline procedures are outlined in an employee handbook, the employer might have to follow those procedures even in cases in which the employment is at-will.

Employees who were fired may also show that their terminations violated implied or oral promises. This includes promises of continued employment or specific discipline procedures. In those cases, some courts might find that an implied employment agreement was in effect. Courts will consider a number of factors in making their determinations, including how long the worker’s employment had lasted, how often promotions happened, written or oral assurances that were made to the worker and the employer’s usual patterns of behavior and practices.

What to do

If you think that your termination was wrongful, you may be able to recover back pay, compensatory damages, reinstatement and other relief. It is important for you to talk to an experienced employment law attorney at Swartz Swidler to discuss what happened in your case. Contact us to schedule a free consultation.