Wrongful Termination

You may have heard the term “wrongful termination” in a lot of situations. However, only certain types of termination are classified as “wrongful” under the law. A wrongful termination requires that you be fired for an illegal reason. Illegal reasons could include violation of antidiscrimination laws, violation of whistleblower laws, or breach of contract for example. If your termination was not the result of a legal or contractual violation then you are likely employed at-will and may not have legal recourses for a termination that you consider unfair. For more information about at-will employment and wrongful termination read below.

“Wrongful termination” is a phrase that is often misused and may be confusing. People often believe that they have a lawsuit for wrongful termination any time they have been fired unjustly. However, wrongful termination from a legal perspective describes a situation in which the employer violates a specific law, public policy, or the terms of an employment contract by firing you. Many of those laws have their own enforcement mechanisms, and so a separate legal claim for wrongful termination may not be necessary. There is no federal law against wrongful termination, and therefore what is considered to be “wrongful termination” will vary by state, with some states not recognizing a separate legal claim for wrongful termination at all. If your employer has not violated a law, public policy or employment contract, then your employment is most likely “at-will employment” and your termination alone does not violate the law or give you a right to go to court.

At-will employment refers to the legal principle applicable to most private workplaces in the United States. At-will employment means that the employer or the employee can end the employment at any time, with or without advance notice, and for any reason–or no reason–at all. Wrongful termination is a very limited exception to at- will employment. Please refer to our At-Will Employment page for more information.

Yes. Since discrimination on the basis of specific protected categories violates federal and/or state law, being terminated for that reason is being terminated for an illegal reason. If you can show that you were terminated based on your race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, pregnancy, or age (or other legally protected categories), your termination could be considered wrongful termination. Most states have their own enforcement mechanism for discrimination cases, and are therefore not brought as wrongful termination cases. For more information, please see our Discrimination section.

A termination may be wrongful if it violates an employment contract. However, most employment in the private sector is at-will, as discussed above, and is not performed under a contract. A contract may be written or oral, and express or implied. For more information about employment contracts, please refer to our Contracts page.

Although most employees in the private sector do not have employment contracts, some information that employers put in writing may qualify as a contract. A written contract or other document that promises job security at the time of employment may be considered a legally binding promise. A written contract with the terms outlining the methods of termination can also be enforceable.

Even promises not made in writing can sometimes be considered binding implied promises. Verbal promises or gestures that an employer has made may seem hopeless because they are hard to prove. However, implied contracts have been found where employers promised “permanent employment” or employment for a specific period of time, or where employers set forth specific forms of progressive discipline in an employee manual.

When determining whether an implied contract exists, the court may consider various factors such as: duration of employment; regularity of job promotions; history of positive performance reviews, and more.

Some states permit unfairly terminated employees with employment contracts to bring a claim for a breach of the duty of “good faith and fair dealing” that is implied in all contracts. These acts may include anything from firing or transferring employees to prevent them from collecting sale commissions to coercing employees to quitting without collecting severance pay or other benefits. This is not often recognized as an exception to at-will employment, but might be applicable in your state.

If an employer fires an employee for reasons that society recognizes as illegitimate grounds for termination, it is considered a violation of public policy. These reasons may include: firing for taking time off work to vote or serve on a jury or even notifying authorities about some wrongdoing harmful to the public (whistleblowing).

Whistleblowing is when an employee gives information about the employer to a regulatory agency or other authority that causes the employer some type of fine or hardship. You can find more information on our site’s whistleblowing page.

No. You cannot be terminated for whistleblowing, assuming of course that your claim for whistleblowing meets the applicable legal requirements. This would undermine the policy of the state, since other employees would be afraid to report their employer’s wrongdoing if they knew that the employer could legally fire them for doing so. You can find more information on our site’s whistleblowing page.

If you believe that you have been wrongfully terminated, it would be wise for you to contact an employment attorney and also seek unemployment benefits. Working with an attorney will help you determine if you were actually wrongfully terminated and where to go from there. Seeking unemployment will help ease the financial hardship, while you seek new employment.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.