Losing or leaving a job is something millions of Americans have already faced this year, but if you are reading this article, that is a small consolation. However, perhaps this article can shed some light on the process, practices, and your legal rights according to termination labor laws surrounding leaving a job, and more specifically, being fired from a job. If you’ve recently been terminated, fear impending layoffs, or have heard more than a few things through the office grapevine, perhaps a quick review of the sections below would prove beneficial and provide clear facts into an otherwise uncertain and complicated situation.
The At Will Employment Precedent
Since the Payne v. Western Atlantic RR case in 1894, American courts have regularly upheld an employer’s right to fire one or all of their employees at will. For many years, this gave employers free range to dismiss employees for a litany of reasons, including some that may have been illegal. Today, however, wrongful termination suits are on the rise, and for employees recently fired, they may have some recourse to challenge the legality of their firing. Firing an employee is not illegal, but in some states, there are certain protections afforded to workers that protect their rights to remain employed in spite of circumstances an employer may deem reasonable cause to discharge them.
Illegal Actions during Employee Firing
Some situations and circumstances surrounding a firing may make it feasible for terminated employees to file a wrongful termination suit against their employers. These few important exceptions and standards are the core of what generally constitutes breach of duty and cause for a successfully filed wrongful termination suit.
Employers Breaching the Terms of Written Contracts
During the course of being hired as a worker, many employees enter into a written agreement with their employer, which establishes pertinent items such as start date, salary, benefits, and expected duties. Written employment agreements create a legally binding employment contract, if they contain the following elements, including:
- Offer solicited by one individual to another
- Offer is accepted per terms
- Something of value changes hands between the two parties per the terms of the accepted offer
Some employees can argue they are not at-will employees per the terms of their contract employee agreement, which may allude or specifically note that an employee is exempted from the at-will doctrine. Even clauses, such as termination allowed only due to “good cause” or “profound reason” have been upheld in wrongful termination suits as grounds exempting a worker from at-will employment. Other contract employees may expressly enter into employment agreements with an employer for a set period of time, set price, and other terms, which if an employee is fired during the tenure, could constitute a breach of contract by employers.
Employers Breaching the Terms of Implied Contracts
Many workers facing termination may find numerous pieces of evidence supporting a wrongful termination suit in company handbooks and manuals. Verbal promises or insinuations that employees are “permanently employed” can exempt workers from an at-will work agreement. If fired for reasons other than just cause, these workers can feasibly pursue a wrongful termination suit against their employers. Other possible scenarios where an employer may breach implied employment contract terms, and pave the way for a legally grounded wrongful termination suit, may include:
- Company policy mandating an increasing company disciplinary standard, such as reprimands, warnings, or other actions, before an employee can be fired
- Hiring negotiations and other materials noting some form of stable employment
- Verbal agreements setting employment periods until “at least” or “no sooner than” a specific event occurs
Each case of an employee being fired presents unique circumstances that the courts must take into consideration including items:
- Length of employment
- Positive and negative aspects of employment, including promotions, performance reviews, and other recognitions
- Existence of permanent employment assurances
- Whether firing practices violated established company policy
Another aspect potentially giving employees legally grounds for suits against their former employer can occur if an employer breaches good faith and fair dealing doctrine. Breaches of good faith and fair dealings may occur when employers deal with current employees in a manner that shields or misleads a worker regarding certain aspects of job, including location, expected duties, hazards, and pay rates.
Employers Violating Public Policy
An employee’s firing may be illegal if an employer violates public policy during the process. For examples, workers cannot be legally terminated for reporting law violations an employer allows to persist. Many federal laws protect the rights of workers to do certain things without fear of being terminated by their employer, these laws most commonly include:
- The Fair Labor Standards Act
- Occupations Safety and Health Act
- Civil Rights Act of 1964
- Equal Pay for Equal Work Act of 1963
- Any applicable state laws related to the above
In instances of employers violating public policy, an employee must show their employer used illegal grounds for firing an employee, such as for filing a complaint, serving with the military or National Guard, or performing legally required civic duties. Employers retaliating against workers engaged in a legally protected activity are in violation of public policy. However, employers generally can cite a limitless number of reasons for firing an employee, and it is the responsibility of an employee to show their legally protected actions were the direct or supporting cause of their employer’s decision to terminate them.
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