Getting fired from a job is an unpleasant experience, particularly when an employer decides to terminate without warning. Abrupt termination not only means job loss, but frequently it may also mean little preparation for the newly acquired status of job seeker. It's understandable for a terminated employee to feel wronged and to wonder if the law might support that feeling.
Is it advisable to pursue legal action against a company for terminating employment? Most of the time the answer is not clear—labor laws provide employers with wide-ranging protections when it comes to firing workers, but there are certain exceptions to these pro-employer laws.
In general, the relationship between employers and their personnel is governed by the legal principle of at-will employment. Essentially, this means that companies can legally fire their employees without any reason and free from any obligation to provide advance notice. Similarly, employees have the right to leave their current job at any time and without warning.
In practice, employers usually state a reason for letting an employee go (e.g., poor performance, or lack of work), and it is typically customary for workers to give employers a couple of weeks of notice prior to leaving the company. Both of these practices are common but are merely professional courtesies – neither is required by law.
At-will employment may be summarized as the right of employers to fire personnel “for any reason or no reason,” but this is not entirely accurate because there are some exceptions where termination may be illegal.
Under federal law, an employer's decision to fire a worker cannot be based on any of the following characteristics:
- National origin
Employers are not allowed to make firing decisions because of personal distaste for an employee's race, religion, physical disability, or any other federally protected characteristic.
Employees also cannot be fired for complaining about illegal activities at their place of employment, such as discrimination or sexual harassment. Similarly, employees must be permitted to take time off from work to vote and to appear in court.
Violation of Contract
While it's rare, employees may have a contract stipulating a predetermined length of employment (e.g., six months) during which the employee cannot be fired or can only be fired for just cause. If the employer fires the employee in violation of the terms of the employment contract, the employee may be able to make a case for illegal termination based on breach of contract.
The laws associated with at-will employment are not as clear-cut as many may think. The key to successfully pressing a legal claim often rests on the plaintiff's ability to produce relevant documentation related to their termination. If you believe you've been terminated illegally, call Barrett & Farahany, LLP for a complimentary consultation with one of our attorneys.