Wrongfully versus illegally
If you’ve been fired from your job, whether you can or should file a lawsuit depends on a variety of factors. First and foremost, have you been fired wrongfully? “Wrongful termination” or “wrongful firing” is the legal term that encompasses most, if not all, the possible ways that your employer can “let you go” that might give rise to a lawsuit. Most commonly, wrongful firing/termination involves:
- Violation of applicable law (state, federal, or even local/municipal): This is the clearest example of what is meant by illegal firing. This includes termination that constitutes racial, age, and other discrimination against a person who is a member of a protected class (we’ll get to that in a bit). It also includes a termination that is retaliatory against an employee for an action taken by the employee that is protected by law (we’ll get to that in a bit too).
- Violation of an employment or other private: This is where the employer and the employee are parties to a contract governing the terms of employment. When the employer fires the employee in breach of the contract, the termination is wrongful (although not necessarily illegal).
- Violation of a collective bargaining agreement. This comes up in when an employee is a member of a union, and the employer is bound by such an agreement that protects the employee. Firing someone in violation of a collective bargaining agreement could be both illegal and wrongful.
But speaking generally here, whether we use the term wrongful or illegal, we’re talking about a situation with respect to which you may end up having rights against your employer (for having had your employment terminated) that can be enforced by a court of law. If you’re currently on the job hunt, avoid these resume mistakes at all costs.
Generally, it’s OK if your boss fires you for no reason at all
One of the harshest realities of employment law is that in 49 of our 50 U.S. states, employment is considered “at-will” (the holdout state is Montana, and we’ll explain that in a moment). At-will is a concept that is intended to protect employers. An at-will employee can be fired for literally no reason at all, and with no notice. For example:
Employer: Good morning, Employee. Have a great day. And by the way, it’s your last.
Employee: What? Why?
Employer: No reason.
This scenario is probably an employer’s most litigation-proof way of going about firing an employee in the 49 states that are not Montana (in which employees cannot be fired except for “good cause” after a specified probationary period). That being said, it is extremely rare for an employer to fire their employees in this manner.
However, this way of firing gets murky once something “wrongful” comes into play. What would make it wrongful is if violates a contract that you can enforce or a law that protects you. So the first thing you want to ask yourself is whether your firing violates a contract. Make sure you do these 10 things at your last day at any job.