If you were recently fired by your employer, you might question whether your employer had the legal right to terminate your employment. In some cases, employers fire workers for illegal reasons or in violation of employment contracts. If you believe that you were fired illegally, the employment attorneys at Swartz Swidler can help you to determine whether to file a lawsuit.
What is wrongful termination?
Wrongful termination occurs when an employer fires an employee for an unlawful reason, in retaliation for the employee’s engaging in protected activities, or in violation of the provisions of an employment contract or collective bargaining agreement. While most workers in the U.S. are at-will employees, employers cannot fire workers based on their protected statuses. For example, it is against state and federal law for an employer to fire a worker because of his or her race, religion, gender, pregnancy, disability, age if over 40, genetic information, national origin, sexual orientation, or color.
Employers are also prohibited from firing workers in retaliation for engaging in protected activities or whistleblowing. This includes filing discrimination complaints or reports about the employer violating the law, serving on a jury, taking FMLA leave, or participating in military service. When employers fire workers for one of these reasons, the terminations are considered to be wrongful.
What does not count as wrongful termination?
Most U.S. workers are employed at will. This means that employers can terminate their employment for any reason as long as it is not discriminatory. Employers are generally allowed to fire workers without giving advanced notice and to decline to give them a reason for being fired. Many employers do not provide notice to workers in advance of firing them and choose not to give them explanations. They might try to avoid doing so to prevent discrimination claims.
If you do not have a collective bargaining agreement or an employment contract that calls for notice, your employer can fire you at any time. Employers also are not required to allow you to fix performance issues before they terminate your employment. However, many employers include a termination process that includes performance improvement plans to help to maintain better morale among their employees and to minimize the risk of lawsuits.
Examples of wrongful termination
Under state and federal law, employers may not discriminate in any aspect of employment based on an employee’s gender, color, race, religion, national origin, age, disability, pregnancy, or genetic information. If you were fired based on your protected status, you can file a lawsuit for wrongful termination. You can also file a wrongful termination lawsuit if you were fired for whistleblowing or in retaliation for engaging in another type of protected activity. People who are forced to resign because of a hostile work environment caused by prohibited discrimination or harassment may also have grounds to file a wrongful termination claim.
What to know before you file a lawsuit
If you believe that the reason that you were fired was based on discrimination because of your protected status, you will likely be required to file a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before you file a lawsuit. One exception to this rule is when there was a violation of the Equal Pay Act. There is a strict deadline to file a discrimination charge. You must file your charge with the EEOC within 180 days of the date of the incident. However, in states like New Jersey that have state agencies to handle discrimination claims, the deadline may be extended to 300 days.
It is also important for you to know what you want out of a lawsuit. For example, you might want your former employer to change its behavior, or you might be primarily motivated by monetary damages. Before you get involved in a lengthy process, you should talk to an employment attorney to learn whether you have reasonable, attainable goals.
Litigation can be expensive. If your case goes to trial, it can cost several thousand dollars. Many companies have teams of attorneys to defend them against claims. However, many wrongful termination lawsuits do not go to trial because employers decide to settle rather than risk trials. It is still important for you to think about the amount of effort, money, and time you can put into the process before you file a lawsuit.
What to do after you have been fired
Whether or not you decide to file a wrongful termination lawsuit, you will need to have a plan in place for what to do after your termination. You should learn your rights as a former employee such as how to receive your final paycheck and what will happen to your benefits, retirement plan, and stock options that you might have. You can talk to the human resources department at your former company to learn about what to expect. You should also ask what they will say when the company is contacted by prospective employers. You could also potentially receive unemployment benefits while you are searching for a new job.
If you believe that you were wrongfully terminated and want to learn more about your legal options, the employment lawyers at Swartz Swidler are available to answer the questions that you might have. We focus exclusively on employment law issues and have helped our clients to recover damages when they have been wrongfully terminated. Contact us today to schedule a consultation by calling 856.685.7420 or by filling out our online contact form.