Being dismissed unfairly can be traumatic, not to mention financially damaging. It is well-known that most people employed in the U.S. are subject to "dismissal at will." However, this doesn't mean that your employer has unrestricted freedom to fire you. In some circumstances, an employer may act unlawfully in dismissing someone. This is called "wrongful dismissal," "wrongful termination" or "wrongful discharge."
Just being dismissed unfairly isn't enough to claim wrongful dismissal. You must have been fired for a reason specifically deemed unlawful. Situations that may constitute wrongful dismissal vary among states, but here's an overview.
- Retaliation: Your job is terminated in response to your taking steps protected by public policy in your state. For example, reporting your employer for illegal activity, making a legal claim against your employer, whistle blowing or refusing sexual advances.
- Discrimination: Your dismissal is motivated by something such as age, race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, religious belief or disability.
- Breach of explicit or implied contract overriding dismissal-at-will status: For example, your employment contract or the human-resources handbook might set out a specific disciplinary procedure that must be followed before dismissal.
- Character defamation: The basis of the termination was an untruthful allegation made maliciously by the employer, which makes it hard for you to find new work.
- Breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing: Your employer dismisses you to avoid dealing with you in good faith or in a fair, ethical and honest way. For example, to avoid giving you a promised raise. This is not recognized in all states.
- Constructive discharge: You're forced to resign because your employer has made working conditions intolerable.
If you think you have been wrongfully dismissed, you can pursue a legal claim against your employer. In some states, this needs to be done directly against the employer as a civil lawsuit, whereas in others you need to file a claim through the government agency responsible for labor laws. If you think you have been wrongfully dismissed due to discrimination, it's normally necessary to make an initial complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
If your employer is found to have wrongfully dismissed you, the solutions depend on the state in question. In some cases, it might be a set penalty, and in others the company might be required to reinstate you or pay damages for your lost wages and expenses. In some circumstances, the employer might have to pay additional punitive damages.
Labor law varies significantly from state to state. In addition to finding out whether you have actually been wrongfully dismissed, it's important to consider the chance of making a successful claim, because wrongful dismissal can be hard to prove. You can find information about each state's labor laws via the federal Department of Labor and your state's labor department; however, you may want to consult an employment lawyer about unfair dismissal in your state.