Wrongful termination, like so many phrases that are commonly used, has many interpretations and many definitions, most of which are wrong. Often, someone who has been fired from a job and is unhappy about the circumstances will say that he or she has been "wrongfully terminated" because the circumstances surrounding the termination were, in that person's opinion, unfair.
It is always difficult for a person who has been terminated to understand or accept the fact that what is "fair" and what is legal are two very different matters. Certain terminations are clearly unlawful.
Unlawful terminations are those based on an individual's membership in a class of persons who have been given special protection by the law because that class has traditionally been discriminated against.
Examples of these classes are persons who have been discriminated against because of their race, gender, age, handicap status, national origin, religious preference, sexual orientation and others. There are many federal as well as state statutes that provide protection in these various areas.
Because of the broad use of the term, wrongful termination has also been defined as wrongful dismissal and retaliatory discharge.
Traditionally, if a person did not have a written contract of employment and was not a member of a protected class, then the doctrine of employment-at-will controlled. Employment-at-will allows an employer to terminate an employee at any time while at the same time giving an employee the freedom to walk away from his or her job with no consequences.
Public policy exceptions and statutory protections, however, have begun to erode the absolute prohibition against any recourse against an employer under the employment-at-will doctrine.
What are public policy exceptions?
Often, courts have held that for certain public policy reasons, employees should not lose their jobs under the employment-at-will doctrine. Examples of this would be when an employee has been called to serve on jury duty, or has made a workers' compensation claim and the employer has retaliated against him or her, or a worker has reported illegal activity or violations of safety codes and the employer has retaliated against him or her. The courts have reasoned that these exceptions, as well as others, have important public policy considerations, and an employee should not have his or her job put in jeopardy because he or she exercised of the rights of citizenship.
What are statutory exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine?
Aside from federal and state discrimination law for members of protected classes, some states have enacted legislation that protects the employee and controls the employment relationship between employee and employer. Other states have looked to the nature of the relationship to determine whether or not an implied-in-fact contract of employment exists. Often, personnel and policy handbooks as well as other statements by the employer to the employee are looked at to determine whether or not a contractual relationship has been created. If a contractual relationship is determined to exist, then the employment-at-will doctrine will no longer control the relationship. The terms of the implied-in-fact contract will now determine when and how an employee can be terminated.
Because of the evolving nature of this area of the law, you should immediately contact an attorney in your state so that he or she can properly apprise you of what your state's law is as well as to inform you of the statute of limitations, which is the period of time during which you must pursue some form of legal remedy in court before that right is lost.