A wrongful termination happens when a worker is fired or laid off for an improper or unlawful reason. Five common examples of wrongful terminations are when the worker is discharged for:
- filing for workers’ compensation,
- blowing the whistle on wrongdoing,
- discriminatory reasons,
- taking legally-protected leave, and/or
- demanding unpaid wages.
You have legal recourse if you were wrongfully terminated for any of these reasons.
1. Filing for workers’ compensation
One example of a wrongful termination is if you were fired for filing for workers’ comp.
Each state has its own set of workers’ compensation laws. However, they all protect workers from retaliation for filing for workers’ comp. If workers were not protected from this sort of retaliation, they would never file for workers’ compensation. Employers could fire anyone who got hurt and just hire someone else to replace the terminated employee. This would lead to deteriorating working conditions.
However, it is generally up to you to prove that the termination was connected to your workers’ comp claim.
2. Whistleblower activities
If your employer has let you go for being a whistleblower, it can amount to a wrongful termination.
You are a whistleblower if you report suspected violations of:
- federal or state laws or regulations, or
- public policy concerns.
Many federal laws provide specific whistleblower protections in certain circumstances, such as the:
- Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which applies to employees of publicly-traded corporations who report securities fraud, and
- Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which applies to employees in public corporations.
You become a whistleblower when you report your suspicions to:
- local, state, or federal law enforcement, or
- your supervisor or someone else within the company, such as the human resources department.
Importantly, your concerns do not have to be proven true. You are a whistleblower, and entitled to whistleblower protections, if you reasonably suspected, in good faith, that your employer was committing misconduct.
If your employer fires you or takes another negative action against you, it can amount to whistleblower retaliation. This can be grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. An employment attorney can help you invoke your legal rights in these situations.
You may have a wrongful termination claim if you were discharged or fired for a discriminatory reason. This includes retaliating against you for opposing workplace discrimination or harassment, including sexual harassment.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the federal law that forbids employers from discharging workers because they are in a protected class. Those protected classes include:
- gender identity,
- sexual orientation,
- national origin,
- medical condition, and
- many others.
If your employer fired you because you had one of these protected traits, it may have been a wrongful termination.
Additionally, Title VII legally protects you if you:
- participate in a lawsuit or an investigation regarding harassment or discrimination,
- file a harassment or discrimination complaint, or
- speak out against discrimination or harassment that has, for example, created a hostile work environment.
Generally, you will have to file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before filing an employment discrimination or unlawful termination lawsuit. An employment lawyer can let you know what your employee rights are.
Many states have anti-discrimination laws that are more robust than the federal Title VII employment law. These may apply to smaller employers than Title VII or may provide additional penalties against your employer.
4. Taking workplace leave
You can also be the victim of a wrongful termination if you were fired for taking workplace leave. If the law entitles you to workplace leave and you have accrued it, you have a right to take it.
Some common types of workplace leave are:
- sick leave,
- vacation time,
- family and medical leave under state law or the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA),
- kin care leave,
- stress leave,
- pregnancy leave,
- maternity, paternity, and new parent leave,
- jury duty leave,
- voting leave,
- bereavement leave,
- crime victims leave,
- domestic violence victims leave,
- drug and alcohol rehabilitation,
- literacy education leave, and
- school activities leave.
Firing you for taking legally-protected workplace leave is an example of a termination that violates public policy. This is one of the exceptions to at-will employment. While you can generally be terminated for any reason, the public policy exception makes it a wrongful termination to fire you for:
- refusing to break the law,
- reporting a potential violation of law or regulation, or “blowing the whistle” on illegal activity,
- performing a legal duty or obligation, or
- exercising a statutory right or privilege.
Those statutory rights and privileges include taking legally-protected workplace leave.
5. Demanding unpaid wages
If you file a claim for unpaid wages, federal law protects you from retaliation by your employer.
Section 15(a)(3) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) forbids employers from discharging you if you:
- filed a complaint for unpaid wages, or
- testified in such a complaint.
Those unpaid wages can be for:
- minimum wage, or
- any other wage that you have earned.
Additionally, many state wage and hour laws provide more extensive protections for these situations. Employers who could fire workers for demanding their earned wages could systemically underpay workers and then terminate them when they complained.
Do I have a wrongful termination case if I am under at-will employment?
Just because you are an at-will employee does not mean that you cannot be wrongfully terminated. There are exceptions to at-will employment. If you fall in one of these exceptions, you can be wrongfully discharged for an illegal reason.
At-will employment means that you or your employer can end the employment relationship at any time and for any reason or for no reason. In nearly all states, employment is presumed to be at-will. That presumption can be overcome if:
- you and your employer agree otherwise, generally in the employment contract, or
- an exception to at-will employment applies.
Some of the most common exceptions to at-will employment are:
- the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing,
- there is an implied contract for ongoing employment,
- your employer committed fraud or misrepresentation, and
- public policy.
All contracts, including employment contracts, come with the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. If you can show that your employer acted in bad faith or deprived you of the benefits of the employment agreement, such as by firing employees in violation of its own company policies in the employee handbook, it can support a claim for wrongful discharge.
An implied contract is an unwritten agreement. Employers can make a binding implied contract to:
- employ you for a certain amount of time, or
- not terminate you unless there is good cause to do so.
Violating such a promise can lead to a breach of contract claim.
Employers can commit fraud or misrepresentation if they induce you to take the job with false promises. If you are subsequently fired, it can support a wrongful termination claim.
The public policy exception, however, is the biggest one. This forbids terminations if allowing them would undermine an important public policy or interest. Examples include getting terminated because you:
- took legally-protected leave,
- reported legal wrongdoing,
- filed a workers’ compensation claim,
- engaged in political speech or other protected activities on your own time, or
- participated in a harassment or discrimination claim.
If the law were to allow for these terminations, employers could get away with lots of wrongful activity.
What damages can I recover?
The damages you can recover in a wrongful termination claim are generally:
- lost wages, also known as back pay, plus interest,
- lost future wages, also known as front pay,
- emotional distress,
- attorneys’ fees, and
- court costs.
In some cases, you can recover punitive damages.
However, the possible damages can depend on the basis for the claim. Different labor laws and wrongful termination laws can apply.
A wrongful termination lawyer from a reputable law firm can advocate on your behalf against your former employer.
 See, e.g., California Labor Code 132(a) LAB.
 18 USC 1514A.
 124 Stat. 1376 – 2223.
 42 USC 2000e-2.
 42 USC 2000e-3.
 29 USC 215(a)(3).
 See, e.g., California Labor Code 2922 LAB.