“I raised concerns about how my employer was handling government money. The next week I was fired. What are my rights?”
Most states recognize at-will employment as the default. Many employees wrongly believe that this gives employers the right to fire employees at any time and for any reason. In addition to applicable laws banning terminations based on discriminatory and retaliatory motives, an employer’s ability to terminate at-will employees is limited by common law restrictions on “wrongful termination” that is deemed in violation of public policy. In many jurisdictions, an employee must demonstrate two things in order to prevail in a legal common law claim of wrongful termination.
- His or her termination was motivated by the employer’s bad faith, retaliation or malice.
- He or she was terminated for acting in a way that public policy would encourage or for refusing to act in a way that public policy would condemn.
Wrongful termination in violation of public policy often occurs in cases of workplace safety or where the employer is failing to follow the law in some way. Common wrongful termination claims include being terminated for exposing company wrongdoing, being terminated in violation of laws, such as the laws against discrimination, being terminated so the employer can avoid paying a commission, or being terminated for refusing to violate the law or public policy. Additionally, many employees, including public sector employees, enjoy certain constitutional rights, including free speech and due process rights, which impact when termination is permissible and what procedures must be followed.
Employees who are wrongfully terminated in violation of public policy may be entitled to damages, including but not limited to lost wages, lost earning capacity, lost employment benefits, emotional distress, humiliation, inconvenience, loss of enjoyment of life, and attorney fees.
Workplace Complaints and Privacy Issues
“My boss is paranoid about employee theft even though there is no theft problem. He installed a video camera inside the locker room. I feel uncomfortable, but don’t want to lose my job. What should I do?”
Employees of a state or the federal government often have privacy protections afforded to them through the United States Constitution. However, for most individual employees, the right to privacy in the workplace is largely governed by specific state laws. As a general rule of thumb, an employer is not allowed to invade an employee’s privacy when the employee has a reasonable expectation of privacy unless the employer has a legitimate business interest that outweighs the employee’s expectation of privacy. An employee’s reasonable expectations of privacy are judged on a societal level, meaning that an employee likely has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a location that society commonly views as private, such as a locker room where employees regularly change clothes. What constitutes a legitimate business interest must be determined on a case by case basis.
However, as stated, privacy rights are largely governed by individual state laws. Specific states may have stronger or weaker privacy protections for employees. An employee who has had his privacy invaded by an employer may be entitled to damages, including emotional distress and anxiety damages, lost wages, back pay, and punitive damages.
Breach of a Written or Implied Employment Contract
“My employer gave me a contract that said I couldn’t be fired without cause. After working for a number of years with no complaints, I was fired for no reason. Is this legal?”
Sometimes employees are provided with contracts of employment that stipulate certain ways the employer must treat the employee. The most common contractual protections state that an employee cannot be fired (or cannot be fired before being given adequate notice) unless just cause for the termination exists. When an employer breaches these contracts, such as through firing an employee for no reason, the employee may be entitled to damages due to a breach of a contractual agreement. In rare cases, even if an employer has not provided some sort of contractual protection, employer promises to act in a certain way may create implied contractual protections. Enforceable employment contracts may exist in both unionized and non-unionized workplaces.
Employees who are terminated in violation of contractual protections may be entitled to relief, including, but not limited to compensatory damages for the contractual breach, lost wages, and lost employment benefits.
We Offer Free Initial Consultations
If you believe you were terminated in violation of company policies or were subjected to a wrongful discharge, do not hesitate to contact Wyatt & Associates for a free initial consultation. Our experienced and compassionate attorneys will sit down with you and take the time to listen to your story. In the event that we can help vindicate your rights, we will zealously advocate on your behalf at every step of the process—whether that is filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or litigating in a state or federal court.