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What Constitutes Wrongful Termination?

Wrongful termination (also known as a wrongful discharge) simply means that a person has been fired for illegal reasons. Wrongful termination covers a wide variety of topics within employment law, but some of the most common include when an employer fires employees for:

  • Being in a protected class (such as race, national origin, age, gender identity, or sexual orientation)
  • Having medical conditions or disabilities
  • Opposing or reporting illegal practices (including whistleblowing)
  • Exercising employee rights under state and federal labor law

It is important to note that wrongful termination encompasses not just direct firing, but also what is known as “constructive termination,” where the work environment is made so intolerable that a reasonable person would be forced to resign. In other words, being forced to quit can count as being fired. 

Can You Sue For Wrongful Termination?

If you feel you have been wrongfully terminated, you may be able to sue your former employer. The laws that you can sue under will depend on the circumstances of your case and the state in which you reside and work in. For example, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) protects individuals from being fired for discriminatory reasons on the basis of their race, sex, sexual orientation, or other protected characteristics. California’s FEHA also protects employees against terminations due to disabilities. Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provide similar protections on a federal level. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can also protect against termination for taking medical leave.

You may also be able to file suit if you have been fired for opposing illegal actions by your employer or for exercising certain rights. For example, California law and federal law prohibit terminating an employee because they have opposed workplace discrimination or harassment or filed a complaint about such misconduct. Federal and California law also protects whistleblowers who report unsafe or illegal conduct.

California law similarly allows lawsuits for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Essentially, this permits lawsuits when the termination violates government goals of upholding the law, preventing discrimination, and protecting the public at large. The state of California has recognized a wide variety of public policies that can support a case of wrongful termination, including refusing to commit criminal acts, refusing to sign noncompete agreements, and disclosing illegal, unethical, or unsafe practices which affect the public at large.

If you believe that you may have a case for wrongful termination, it is important to know that your case has a time limit. These time limits, known as statutes of limitations, state how long you have to file a lawsuit after the events happen. There may also be requirements that you file a complaint with a government agency, such as the California Civil Rights Division (CRD) or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), before pursuing a wrongful termination lawsuit and these can have time limits as well. 

What Are the Consequences of Wrongful Termination?

Common Legal Remedies For Unlawful Termination

Generally, the goal of the law is to put a wrongfully terminated employee in the place they would have been had the unlawful termination had not happened. The exact remedies will vary based on your location, the source of law, and the facts of your case. In some cases, you may be entitled to court orders for the employer to cease their wrongful conduct or even to reinstate you to your former position.

Potential Damages in Wrongful Termination Cases 

You may be entitled to economic damages, such as backpay, and emotional distress damages. You may also be entitled to punitive damages, which are intended to deter future misconduct by the defendant. In some circumstances, your attorneys’ fees may also be covered. 

If you believe you may have wrongful termination claim, you should contact an employment attorney in your state. An employment attorney can evaluate your potential wrongful termination case and help you understand your legal rights under federal and state laws.

Please feel free to contact us and we would be happy to discuss your case with you.