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When does being fired become "wrongful discharge?"

Accepting employment with a company is generally a straightforward affair, with employees doing the work for which they were hired and employers paying them regularly and on time for their work. However, disputes can arise that may lead to termination. When an employee feels they have been terminated (laid off or fired) unfairly, they may choose to file a lawsuit charging "wrongful discharge."

"At will" employment

Most states in the U.S. allow "at will" employment, meaning employers can generally fire someone whenever they want to for whatever reason -- as long as it's not an illegal reason. "At will" does not mean that an employer can discriminate against employees or ask an employee to participate in illegal actions. Employers are required to deal fairly with employees, particularly when employment contracts are involved.

What constitutes wrongful discharge?

Because an employer expects to be allowed to discharge an employee for any reason, the discharged individual must be able to cite specific violations of employment law in the state in which it occurs. Some common reasons for filing a wrongful discharge case would be:

  • Employment contract disputes in which the terms such as salary, length of employment and work tasks are spelled out specifically and were unmet
  • Discharge from employment as retribution for reporting safety violations
  • Discharge for refusing to do actions that would be in violation of the law
  • Discharge for taking time off for jury duty, military service or other public duties
  • Discharge for having a medical condition
  • Discharge in violation of state and federal policy, such as on the basis of sex, race, ethnic identity or religion
  • Discharge with defamation, with the employer making false and hurtful allegations about an employee's conduct or character
  • Not following policies and procedures that are stated in the employer's human resources manual

Filing a wrongful discharge suit

If you believe you have been wrongfully discharged, you will want to acquire a formal letter of termination for your human resources department stating the reason for the discharge. You will also need to send a letter of dispute of the termination. To support your case, you will want to compile pertinent records such as employment contracts, union agreements, personnel records and any correspondence between you and your employer; and find witnesses to testify on your behalf. An attorney can help you take all of these steps and ensure your rights are protected along the way.

A dispute over wrongful discharge is sometimes necessary to address wrongdoing on the part of an employer. Your attorney will provide the experience and knowledge you need for a successful outcome of your case.

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