I Was Illegally Fired, Can I Sue?
Being terminated can be shocking and stressful. Perhaps you find yourself looking for new work and wondering if you can be compensated for your previous employer’s letting you go. After all, you have experienced a loss and you still have to make a living because you have bills to pay. So, can you sue if you were fired?
In most cases, employment is “at will.” That means you can be terminated at any time for almost any reason. It can be for a good reason, a bad reason, or even no reason at all. No definitive grounds are needed. However, you cannot be terminated for an illegal reason.
On the other hand, if you have a contract that says you are not an at-will employee, you might be able to sue if there was no “good cause” for your termination.
If you were wrongfully and illegally terminated from your job, you have powerful state and federal laws protecting your rights. It’s possible that you can sue as a former employee if you were fired.
Wrongful At-Will Terminations
For at-will employees, whether the employee did anything wrong or “deserved” to be fired usually doesn’t matter. The employer doesn’t actually have to tell you why you’re being fired. The only requirement is that the reason cannot be illegal.
Here are reasons that are considered to be illegal and for which an employer is not allowed to fire you.
The law says it is illegal to fire someone for a discriminatory reason. This includes terminations based on:
- Age (employees over 40 years)
- Race, national origin, or ethnicity
- Gender, sex, or sexual orientation
- Veteran status
- Religion, religious beliefs, or lack thereof
In order to win a wrongful termination lawsuit, you need to be able to prove you were fired for discriminatory reasons and not something else. For example, if you became pregnant and your boss began to treat you differently, but there was no change in your performance, you may have grounds to sue for being fired.
Retaliation for Whistleblowing
“Retaliation” occurs when an employer treats you negatively because you complained about certain unlawful activities in the workplace. The activities could include:
- Sexual harassment
- Hostile work environment
- Employees’ not being paid properly
- Workplace health and safety violations
- Illegal activities
- Wrongdoing in publicly-traded or private companies.
If you disclosed one of the above problems in your workplace and were terminated as a result, you might be able to sue for wrongful termination.
In certain cases, even if you didn’t report the illegal activity but refused to participate and were fired, you might still be able sue. Whistleblower protections apply to employees looking to do the right, correct, legal thing. Employers could also face consequences simply for asking employees to do something illegal.
For example, if you were asked to change some figures in accounting, double-bill a client, improperly code or bill for services, accept a bribe, or overcharge, there may be violations of Security and Exchange Commission regulations. If you reported the behavior or request and were fired as a result, you may have a claim. Whistleblowers may still be terminated for reasons unrelated to whistleblowing actions, such as frequent tardiness.
The employee doesn’t have to be correct about the unlawful events, just have a “reasonable belief” that the employer’s actions were unlawful. Usually, whistleblowers are acting in the public’s interest and make disclosures for selfless reasons, so their protections are strong to encourage reporting criminal activity that might otherwise go undetected.
Using Entitled Leave or Compensation
If you used certain types of leave, such as under the Federal Medical Leave Act (FMLA), leave for jury duty, or military leave, and were fired as a result, you may have a claim for wrongful termination.
You may also not be fired in retaliation for filing for a work injury. Your employer cannot take negative employment actions against you because you decided to file for workers’ compensation.
If you resigned from your job, but felt your employer forced you and you had no choice, you should seek legal advice. You may have grounds for wrongful termination if you felt pressured, bullied, or blackmailed into resigning.
Any defamation would occur after the termination, such as if the employer is asked for a reference. A defamation suit is different from wrongful termination, but the impact on the employee is similar. An employer can defame a former employee by making false and/or malicious claims about the person, so that it is difficult to find meaningful employment in the future. While not an actual wrongful termination issue, the employee is out of work and unable to bounce back.
What Doesn’t Count As Wrongful Termination
Actions for which You Could Not Sue
Employers have the right to terminate at-will employees at any time, and without any cause. Remember, though, that you may not be terminated for any reason that would be considered illegal. You may not have grounds for a wrongful termination suit as an at-will employee just because your firing seems unfair or unjustified, such as:
- You weren’t given warnings, notice, or clues that you were going to be fired
- You were fired during a probationary period
- You weren’t given a chance to improve your performance or address any concerns
- The employer downsized or no longer needed your services
- You weren’t given any reason for the termination
- You were given a reason that turned out to be wrong or incorrect or over a misunderstanding
- You were repeatedly late or absent, even if you had good reasons.
Many employers offer as little notice or explanation as possible, instead of taking the risk of violating the law by providing reasons that turn out to be discriminatory.
What If I Wasn’t At-Will?
Wrongful Contractual Terminations
If you had a contract with your employer that outlined the reasons you would be allowed to be fired, you might be able to sue for wrongful termination under a breach of contract theory. You would need to prove that the reason for the firing was beyond the contract.
If, however, you were not an at-will employee and the contract didn’t specify the circumstances under which you could be fired, you could generally only be terminated for:
- Habitually neglecting your employment duties
- Willfully breaching your employment duties
- Being unable to perform your employment duties.
You might also have a wrongful termination case if your employer changed a fundamental term of your contract that you refused to accept, then got fired. This could include the following:
- Reducing or changing your work hours
- Changing your title or essential job duties
- Creating a toxic work environment
- Reducing your pay.
For example, if the contract specified that the employment was to be continual, being fired could be considered wrongful termination. Or, if you were hired to answer the phones, but refused to make sales calls and were fired, you could possibly have a case of wrongful termination.
Were You An Employee or Independent Contractor?
The nature of your employment will also determine if you can sue, and for what. Your rights as an employee are different from your rights as an independent contractor.
As an independent contractor, you entered into a business relationship and were technically not an employee. Since you were not an employee, the end of the business relationship is not a “termination” or “firing.” As an independent contractor, the course of action would be to seek compensation for a Breach of Contract, which is different from a wrongful termination lawsuit.
When To Sue for Wrongful Termination
Steps to Take
After it’s been determined that you may have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit, you still have to take certain steps before you sue. Many laws require that you follow administrative procedures and seek other remedies before resorting to legal action. Some of the requirements are outlined in state laws and others in federal law.
Depending on your situation, for example, you may not be able sue your employer for wrongful termination until after you’ve filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC has administrative procedures you must follow before you can file a civil lawsuit.
Your state might also have administrative remedies you must pursue first. For this reason, it’s important that you contact an experienced attorney if you’re considering a lawsuit.
Recovery and Damages for Wrongful Termination
Depending on the circumstances of your case, you may be entitled to:
- Back wages
- Lost income
- Compensation for lower wages if your new job pays less than the one you were fired from
- Punitive damages (These are relatively rare and intended to punish the wrongdoer for egregious acts.)
- Attorneys’ fees
- Compensation for relocation and other costs resulting from your termination.
Every case is different. Our attorneys can examine the factors that led to your termination to determine what damages you are entitled to receive, if any. We can also help you understand whether you were wrongfully fired and have a case.
Can An Attorney Help Me To Sue If I Was Fired?
If you were wrongfully terminated, our lawyers can help you explore your legal options. There are many different applicable laws, including state-specific ones. Some claims are covered by both federal and state law. Let a professional help you proceed with the legal formalities.
We are experienced trial lawyers who have tried numerous employment law cases in state and federal courts throughout Florida and Georgia. We get justice for workers.
Contact our law offices online or call us to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys. We have law offices in Tampa, Florida, and Atlanta, Georgia.
For a consultation, contact the Feldman Legal Group at (813) 639-9366.