Wrongful Termination: How To Decide If Your Firing Was Illegal

How To Decide If Your Firing Was Illegal

When people are fired, they may not know whether or not their terminations were legal. In the U.S., most people are employed at will, which means that they may be terminated for any reason at any time. However, the federal and state anti-discrimination laws carve out some important exceptions and remedies. The employment lawyers at Swartz Swidler might help to determine if you were the victim of a wrongful termination so that you can pursue any available legal claims. Here is how to decide if your firing was illegal.

Written contracts

If you work pursuant to a contract or another written statement that promises job security, you have a good argument that the at-will rule does not apply to you. For example, if you have a contract that states you can only be terminated for good cause or other specific reasons, then you likely will not be considered to be an at-will employee. You may also be able to make this argument if your offer letter makes promises to you about continued employment.

Implied contracts

Another exception to the at-will rule exists when a person has an implied contract, which is an agreement that is implied due to things that your employer has done or said. This is harder to prove because a majority of employers take care to avoid making promises about continued employment. Courts have found that implied contracts existed in cases in which employers promised employment for certain durations, permanent employment or set out specific disciplinary steps in employee manuals. Courts consider a number of different factors when determining whether or not an implied employment contract exists, including:

  • Length of your employment
  • Frequency of promotions
  • Positive performance reviews
  • Assurances of ongoing employment
  • Whether your termination violated a normal employment practice
  • Whether you were promised long-term employment when you were hired

Breaches of good faith and fair dealing

If the way in which your employer acted was unfair, you might have a claim for the employer breaching its duty of good faith and fair dealing. Courts have found such breaches when employers have transferred or fired employees so that they couldn’t collect their commissions from sales. Breaches have also been found when employers have misled employees about wage increases and promotions or have fabricated reasons for termination. Other actions that may be considered to be unfair include not informing employees of bad aspects of their jobs and trying to coerce employees into quitting by transferring them to undesirable assignments so that they won’t be able to collect severance pay. Not all states recognize the good faith and fair dealing exception, however. The employment lawyers at Swartz Swidler may advise you about whether it applies in your particular state.

Violations of public policy

There are certain reasons for firing that are recognized by society as being illegitimate. There are numerous federal and state laws that outline illegal grounds that violate public policy, including:

  • Not paying employees accrued vacation and earned commissions
  • Firing for taking leave to perform jury service
  • Taking time off in order to vote
  • Taking time off for service in the military
  • Whistleblowing


It is illegal for employers to fire at-will employees on the basis of their protected statuses. If you believe that you were terminated because of your age, disability, genetic information, pregnancy, religion, gender, national origin, color or race, you should talk to an employment lawyer at Swartz Swidler immediately. The anti-discrimination laws have strict statutory deadlines for filing complaints, making it important for you to act quickly.


There are certain activities that are legally protected, and employers are not allowed to retaliate against employees for engaging in them. In order to prove that your termination resulted from illegal retaliation, you will need to be able to prove several things. First, you will have to show that you were engaged in an activity that is legally protected. This may include filing a complaint with the EEOC even if the charges were dismissed. You will then have to show that your protected activity made your employer act and that the action was adverse to you.


In egregious cases, an employer’s conduct may rise to the level of fraud. This is often found in recruiting or in coercing employees to quit. You will need to be able to prove that your employer made false representations to you, that a supervisor knew about the fraudulent representation, that it was your employer’s intent to deceive you, that you relied upon the representation that was made to you and that you were harmed as a result.


Defamation lawsuits are brought when a person’s reputation in the community has been harmed. In the employment context, this may include a former employer’s making malicious and false statements about you that reduced your chances of finding a new position. You would need to be able to show that the employer lied about you out of malice. Your employer must have told or written the falsehood to at least one other party, and you must have been adversely affected because of it.

Violations of whistleblower laws

There are laws in place that are meant to protect whistleblowers. Whistleblowers are employees who report illegal activities by their employers. Employers are forbidden from retaliating against whistleblowers as well as people who cooperate with investigators. If you were fired for whistleblowing, you may have grounds for a wrongful termination claim.

How to decide if your firing was illegal

If you believe that you were fired wrongfully, it is important for you to seek advice from an employment law attorney. A lawyer may be able to advise you about whether or not your firing appears to have been illegal. Contact Swartz Swidler today to schedule your consultation.