9 common examples of wrongful termination are when an employee gets fired for:
- a discriminatory reason,
- blowing the whistle on misconduct,
- filing a workers’ compensation claim,
- enduring a hostile work environment,
- demanding unpaid wages,
- cooperating in someone else’s workplace harassment claim,
- speaking out against workplace discrimination,
- invoking your protected leave rights, and
- exercising or expressing political beliefs.
What are some examples of wrongful termination?
Wrongful termination is any discharge that is done for an improper or illegal reason. It can be illegal for violating a state or a federal employment law. They can be improper for being in violation of public policy.
Here are some common factual scenarios that can amount to wrongful termination. If you think that your case sounds similar to one of these, you may have been wrongfully terminated. Even if you are in an at-will employment situation, you still have rights against a wrongful discharge.
Example: David is the only Black man in his workplace. His manager leaves his job and is replaced with Carl. Carl immediately switches David’s shift so they work together. While working, Carl watches David throughout the entire shift and disciplines him for every mistake he makes, no matter how minor. By the end of the week, David has been disciplined far more often than ever before. Carl then uses these disciplinary actions to justify terminating David.
Carl does not do this to any other workers, either during or after David’s time at the company.
This sort of conduct amounts to discrimination when it targets someone’s protected classes or traits. In California, these protected classes are listed by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). This California law forbids discrimination on the basis of your:
- national origin,
- genetic information,
- physical disability,
- mental disability,
- marital status,
- sexual orientation,
- gender expression,
- gender identity,
- age, or
- status as a military veteran.1
Separate federal laws provide independent protections against age discrimination, racial discrimination, and many others.
Whistleblowers are protected from retaliation
Example: Mary is an accountant at a hospital. While working, she notices a pattern: Whenever a specific billing code is used for a patient on Medicare, it is entered twice. This bills Medicare 2 times, even though the medical procedure is only performed once. She brings the records that she has found to the police. Eventually, the U.S. Department of Justice accuses the hospital of healthcare fraud.
When the hospital receives the accusation, it is easy to see that Mary started it. They immediately fire her.
Terminating a whistleblower for their actions is illegal. Many federal and state laws explicitly protect whistleblowers.2 Even when there is no explicit legal protection in a statute, it can be improper as a violation of public policy. Even non-termination employment actions, like a demotion, amount to whistleblower retaliation.
Filing a workers’ compensation claim
Example: Gary is a construction worker. While building a home, he falls off some scaffolding and gets seriously hurt. When he files for workers’ compensation, he is promptly fired in his employer’s attempt to cover up safety violations from OSHA and to avoid paying higher workers’ comp insurance premiums.
Terminating someone for invoking their right to workers’ comp is a form of workers’ compensation retaliation. It is also wrongful to take lesser employment actions against someone for filing a claim for workers’ comp, like:
- demoting them,
- requiring them to use vacation time for medical appointments, or
- reducing their salary.3
Constructive discharge for a hostile working environment
Example: Tabitha is the only woman on a team of IT professionals. She is the target of incessant sexual harassment. At first, the jokes were mild. However, when the team’s supervisor, Jason, joined in, they got worse and more frequent as it became clear that there would be no consequences. The latest joke was for a male coworker to put his hand on Tabitha’s leg whenever they sat next to each other at mandatory team meetings in the conference room. When Tabitha complained about the harassment, she was told to “lighten up.”
Unable to take the harassment anymore after nearly a year, Tabitha quits.
You can be wrongfully terminated even if you quit. Known as a constructive dismissal, it involves working conditions that have become so intolerable that a reasonable person in your shoes would decide that their only alternative was to resign.4 Constructive dismissals are a type of termination. If the termination would have been for an unlawful purpose, including a hostile working environment caused by sexual harassment, it can amount to wrongful termination.
Demanding unpaid wages
Example: William is a cashier at a small deli. He knows that the owners are struggling to stay open, but his paychecks have started to come late. In one, he was not compensated for his overtime hours. After a week has passed since his most recent check was supposed to arrive, William confronts the owner. He demands his paycheck and the overtime wages that he had earned but had not been paid.
Rather than paying William, the owner fires him on the spot.
Wrongful termination laws make it illegal to terminate employees for initiating a wage and hour dispute.5 It is also improper as a violation of public policy. This includes demanding payment for:
- hours worked,
- overtime pay,
- minimum wages,
- vacation pay, and
- rest or meal breaks.
It also covers reporting such violations to the relevant state agency, like the California Department of Industrial Relations.
Participating in someone else’s harassment claim
Example: Sharon claims to be the victim of a quid pro quo sexual harassment incident where her supervisor, Mark, told her to perform a sexual favor if she wanted to get promoted. When her employer denies her allegations, Sharon calls her coworker, Kelly, to testify about how Sharon had told her what had happened right after the incident. Kelly’s detailed testimony strongly shows Sharon is not making her story up.
Immediately after testifying in Sharon’s case, Kelly receives a bad performance review and is summarily fired.
State and federal workplace harassment laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protect the workers filing these claims, as well as anyone participating in them.6 Firing employees for their involvement in the workplace harassment hearing process is illegal.
Speaking out against workplace discrimination
Example: Phil, who is gay, gets transferred into a new job with the company. Most of his team members and his supervisor make off-color and derogatory jokes about his sexual orientation.
When Michelle stands up for him and tells her co-workers to stop being offensive, she gets laid off, even though her seniority should have protected her, according to company policy.
Title VII also protects bystanders who stand up to discrimination in the workplace, in addition to harassing behavior.7
Using your rights to workplace leave
Example: Sam gets the coronavirus. The infection is a bad one and he is in the hospital for 2 weeks. He then struggles with the symptoms of “long covid.” However, he still has enough paid sick leave to cover the absences caused by his medical condition.
Nevertheless, his employer decides to terminate Sam in order to refill his position with someone who will show up more reliably.
Many laws that provide sick leave forbid employers from retaliating against workers who use it. Terminating someone for using their sick leave or their federal rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is illegal and can amount to wrongful termination.
Getting terminated for your political beliefs
Example: Delores spends her weekend canvassing for a third-party candidate who is running for state office. When her supervisor learns of this, she looks up the candidate’s political positions. Not agreeing with them, the supervisor fires Delores for helping his campaign.
State employment laws forbid political retaliation as a form of workplace harassment.8 Terminating someone over their political beliefs or actions is a form of wrongful termination.
What should I do if I am being wrongfully discharged?
You and your employment lawyer should start by reviewing your employment contract and employee handbook. You may be required first to bring your complaint to your company’s human resources department. You may then have to file a wrongful termination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
In many instances, you can only file a wrongful termination case in court after exhausting this administrative remedy.
What can I recover if I have been wrongfully terminated?
If you have been wrongfully terminated in California, you have a legal right to compensation for the damages you have suffered. These may include
- back pay, with interest, as well as
- front pay and
- compensation for your emotional distress.
However, you may be reinstated to your job in some cases. In rare cases, fired employees can recover punitive damages if the termination was especially wrongful, like if you were fired for reporting illegal activity by your employer or illegal behavior in the workplace.
An employment law attorney from a reputable law firm can help you file a wrongful termination lawsuit to recover what you deserve.