People who live in at-will employment states believe they can be terminated from their jobs for any reason and that they have no legal recourse if their firing is unfair. However, this isn't always true. Even though at-will employment laws let employers terminate employees without cause, that doesn't mean employers have total and complete immunity to do what they want. Here are three times when you can hold an employer liable for damages associated with wrongfully terminating you as an at-will employee.
Breach of Good Faith and Fair Dealing
Although employers have the freedom to terminate employees at any time and for any reason, there is still an expectation they will behave in a fair and ethical manner. If the employer firing an employee represents a fraudulent or grossly unfair/unjust action, then the employee may have legal standing to sue for damages.
For instance, a trucker successfully sued his ex-employer for $425,000 in damages because he was allegedly fired for refusing to haul loads that exceeded the state weight limit. It's against state and federal law to haul loads heavier than a truck is rated for and over the maximum limit allowed on the road. An employer firing an employee for not breaking the law is not only morally wrong, but the employer could be held criminal as well as civilly liable.
Other examples of good faith and fair dealing breaches include:
- Firing an employee to avoid paying the person's earned commissions or bonuses
- Purposefully creating a hostile work environment to get the employee to quit
- Terminating an employee for not following procedures or protocol when no one else with the same job at the same company was required to adhere to it
Be aware that some courts may require employees to have written contracts before they can sue for good faith and fair dealing. It's best to consult with an attorney in your area who's familiar with the court system to determine if this is the case and what you can do to get around this issue.
Violation of Written or Implied Promise of Job Security
Another way an employer may be guilty of wrongful termination is if he or she promised you wouldn't be fired without just cause. Most of the time, this is done via a contract where the employer will list some of or all the things that could cause the employee to be terminated (e.g., stealing, poor job performance). However, sometimes employers also imply employees have job security, either verbally or in the contract's language, without actually saying so.
For example, employers who tell employees they don't fire employees without just cause could be held liable for wrongful termination if they fire someone for no justifiable reason, such as dyeing their hair an odd color if that's never been an issue before.
It can be challenging to prove this particular issue, though, especially if the employer made these promises verbally. If you don't have written material or a recording you can point to where the employer makes these promises, then you would have to show the employer had a history of only firing employees with just cause. You would also need to prove how or why your termination differed from previous employee firings.
Protected Class Discrimination
A third way employers can be successfully sued for wrongful termination is if their reasoning for the termination violates anti-discrimination laws. An employer cannot fire an employee because of the person's race, religion, or disability, for example, because these classes are protected by the Civil Rights Act.
Unfortunately, despite the efforts of anti-discrimination activists, not all classes are protected. In some states, you can be fired because of your sexual orientation or transgender identification, for instance. Your employer would need to be guilty of additional violations for you to win in this type of case.
For more information about wrongful termination or assistance litigating your case, contact a personal injury attorney.