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Can I Sue My Employer for Firing Me?

Woman who has lost her job, sitting on steps
By Jaclyn Rainey on August 25, 2020 12:30 PM

Yes, you can sue your employer if they wrongfully fired you. But you need to know if your employer actually broke the law, and you need to determine how strong your case is.

All too often, people want to sue for being fired when the company had a legitimate reason to fire them. Not every firing is illegal. Here's a basic rundown of when you can potentially sue for wrongful termination.

You can sue if your employer commits any of the following actions:

  • Breach of your employment contract
  • Retaliation for a complaint or whistleblower action
  • Discrimination
  • Breach of company policy

If you decide to bring a lawsuit, you can settle outside of court or bring the case in front of a judge. Many factors go into each case, so speaking with an employment law firm during a free consultation is your best first step.

At-Will Employment: Reasons You Can Be Fired

Almost all U.S. employees are at-will employees. At-will employment means your employer does not need a reason to fire you. They also do not need to give you notice. As long as the reason is not illegal, an at-will employee could be let go at any time.

Your employer can fire you for any of these reasons:

  • Breach of your employment contract
  • Poor job performance or performance reviews
  • Violation of employee policy (anything listed in the employee handbook)
  • Misconduct or unprofessional actions (such as being late, absences, not being a team player, damaging property, etc.)
  • Stealing, theft, or crime
  • Violence, or abuse or sexual harassment of co-workers

These are just some of the examples for people being fired. Remember that with at-will employment, an employer can fire you for anything that isn't illegal, so while they can't fire you for the color of your skin, they could potentially fire you for the (unnatural) color of your hair. Even leaving your post to be a good Samaritan could be a legal reason to fire you.

Fired for No Reason? The Case of the At-Will Employee

Public employees may be entitled to a due process hearing before they are terminated. However, at-will private employees can generally be fired without:

  • A period of notice
  • A formal hearing
  • A chance to defend themselves to their employers

For this reason, many private employees choose to unionize. This potentially secures rights to arbitration or mediation when a union member is suspended or fired.

Depending on the specific facts of your job termination, you might be able to show that your employer discriminated or retaliated against you, or was otherwise acting illegally. It is always a good idea to talk with a lawyer about your situation to understand if you have a wrongful termination case.

What Qualifies as Wrongful Termination?

There are several illegal reasons to fire an employee, and these can be the grounds for a wrongful termination suit. If you suspect that you were fired based on discrimination or retaliation, you may be able to sue.

1. Employment Discrimination Is Wrongful Termination

Both public and private employers are prohibited from discriminating based on race, gender, religion, and national origin. The federal laws make it illegal for employers to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity as well. The protected class and discrimination laws are straightforward, and you can review your situation against the regulations to see if you have a case.

2. Disability Discrimination Means You Can Sue

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) works to give everyone a fair chance at employment. You also have protections under The Americans with Disabilities Act. This Act prohibits terminating an employee based on requests for accommodations or disability status.

Genetic information is also not a reason to fire someone or deny them health insurance. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) prohibits being fired over genetic information your company asks for or learns later.

3. Retaliation Is Wrongful Termination

An employer also cannot fire an employee from engaging in a protected activity. These activities include whistleblowing, making complaints of discrimination, and forming a union. Retaliating against an employee for participating in one of these activities is prohibited.

You also cannot be fired for complaining or reporting on sexual harassment.

When Can You Sue for Wrongful Termination?

You can bring a lawsuit right away, or any time within the statute of limitations — usually two years.

How to Prove Wrongful Termination

The earlier you file the lawsuit, the better your chances of having witnesses and evidence of the wrongful termination. Proving wrongful termination requires strong evidence like emails, witness statements, performance reviews, recorded meetings, and more.

If you wait too long, it can be hard to track down former employees, paperwork, and records of what led to wrongful termination. Do not let a lack of evidence stop you from pursuing a case. As long as you have some evidence, your attorney can review the strength of the case.

Steps to Take After Being Let Go

If you suspect your employer let you go based on an illegal reason, you should:

  1. Send copies of emails and documents to yourself if you still have access to your computer (don't worry: an attorney can compel a company to release these files at a later date)
  2. Take detailed notes about the situation — dates, people, comments, meetings, witnesses, etc.
  3. Ask coworkers if they are willing to make a statement about the situation
  4. Contact an employment attorney to discuss your options

Keep in mind that not every firing is a wrongful termination case, but there is legal recourse even for at-will employees.

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