Many workers are unaware about their rights with regard to employment. As a result, they are also unaware of the specifics of being wrongfully discharged. Below are some considerations for employees who may wonder if they have been wrongfully discharged:
• Many employment relationships are considered "at-will," which means that the employer or the employee may terminate the employment relationship at any time with or without reason. However, that does not mean that an employer can terminate employees for a discriminatory reason. If an employer terminates an employee, even one who is "at-will," in violation of federal, state or local anti-discrimination laws, it can face a discrimination lawsuit.
• Federal law forbids employers from discharging or otherwise penalizing employees on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, pregnancy, and age.
• If an employee has an employment contract with the employer, whether expressly made or implied, and is then terminated before the expiration of the contract, or in some other way violates the contract, then the employee may have a claim for wrongful discharge.
• An employee may have a claim for wrongful discharge if the employee is fired for refusing to engage in an illegal act. For example, if a construction employer demands that an employee perform work at a height without safety ropes, and the employee refuses and is then fired, they may be able to bring a wrongful discharge claim.
• If an employee is terminated for taking time off under a law which gives him or her a legal right to have that time off, such as time off for voting or military service, he or she may have a wrongful discharge cause of action.
• An employer who has not followed specific disciplinary and termination policies that are in place can also face a wrongful discharge suit. For example, if an employer has a handbook that states that employees are entitled to receive two written warnings for misconduct or poor performance before they are terminated, and an employee is terminated after receiving only one verbal warning, that employee may be able to successfully bring a wrongful discharge action.
• If you are the victim of a wrongful discharge due to your membership in a protected class, there are some situations in which you cannot immediately bring your employer into court. Instead, under most federal laws you must first file a charge of complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Similarly, if you are seeking the protection of Florida anti-discrimination laws, you must file a charge or complaint with the appropriate agency. Federal law permits you to file simultaneously under federal law and Florida law, increasing your chances of a recovery.
• Depending upon the situation, damages available to wrongfully discharged employees can include back pay, promotion, reinstatement, front pay, compensatory damages, required reasonable accommodations, injunctive relief, punitive damages and attorneys' fees.
• Given the many different ways in which an employer can wrongfully discharge an employee, the number of reasons that an employer may give for discharging an employee, and the significant damages that may be awarded, it is a good idea for a terminated employee to retain legal counsel. An experienced attorney can help sort out the various issues and protect the rights of their client.