AnnaMarie Houlis
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Journalist & travel blogger

Sure, you can be fired for a whole host of reasons. But there are some reasons for which your boss can't fire you, even in an at-will state. Here's everything you should know about wrongful termination — what it is, examples of it in the United States and what you should do if you think that you've been wrongfully terminated.

What is wrongful termination?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination. And you may be surprised that the EEOC handles about 700,000 calls and inquires regarding employment discrimination every single year. Of these, about half have to do with wrongful termination.  The EEOC ultimately secures about $404 million from employers every single year.

In other words: If you feel that you've been wrongfully terminated, you're not alone.

The phrase "wrongful termination" refers to when an employer fires or lays off an employee for a reason that is illegal.  The most common types of cases for wrongful termination include:

  • Discrimination (based on race, sex, age, religion or other factors)
  • Sexual Harassment
  • Retaliation
  • Invasion of Privacy
  • Breach of Contract

Let's break down the types of wrongful termination a bit further.

7 examples of wrongful termination in the US

If you can say, 'yes, I was fired for one of these seven reasons,’ you were likely the victim of wrongful termination:

1. Getting fired on the basis of your gender.

For example, if you were fired from a position because you are a woman, you were wrongfully terminated.

Say, for example, you went to apply for a promotion that you think you deserve. This is for a job in a traditionally male-dominated industry. You don't get the position because you are deemed unfit for it on that basis of your gender — whether or not that is explicitly said. You then lose your current role for which you have lost motivation. You're essentially pushed out of the position and the company altogether because you are a woman. You're uninspired and unsupported, and you don't see a future for yourself at the company. Before you can quit, however, you're wrongfully terminated.

2. Getting fired on the basis of your sexual identity.

If you were fired from your job after coming out to your employer or colleagues and suspect that you were fired because of your sexual identity, you may have been wrongfully terminated. Homophobia and discrimination on the basis of sexual identity are illegal in the workplace.

Say, for example, you come to work one day and you are telling your colleague about a date that you had gone on with someone of the same sex. Other people in the office overhear you, and you start experiencing homophobia afterward that conversation. You start recording instances of it, taking note of every time you feel discriminated on the basis of your sexual identity. It's not long before you're called into the office and lose your job for something that is seemingly insignificant, random, uncalled for, made up, etc. If you suspect that the real reason is because you've revealed your sexual identity, you may be right. If so, you are being wrongfully terminated — and you can use all of your recordings of incidents and instances in which you felt discriminated against to support your case.

3. Getting fired out of retaliation.

Say that you ask to be considered for a promotion that you believe you deserve. If you did not receive the promotion, and you suggest that it's because of your gender or another point of discrimination — and your employer fires you for making such a claim — this is wrongful termination. You cannot be fired out of retaliation. This means that you can neither be fired for asking for the promotion, nor can you be fired for suggesting that the denial of the promotion was because of discrimination.

4. Getting fired for refusing a lie-detector test.

If your employer asks you to take a lie-detector test, you decline, and you get fired because of it, this is wrongful termination. You are allowed to turn down the polygraph. In fact, the federal Employee Polygraph Protection Act prohibits employers for terminating you for this reason. In some states, the polygraph is allowed to be used at all.

5. Getting fired on the basis of your race.

If you believe that you have been fired from your role because you are a person of color, for example, this would constitute as wrongful termination. Being fired on the basis of your race is considered racial discrimination, and it's illegal. Say for example, you have a job with a company you love. But your boss leaves and someone new takes their place. It's not long before you start experiencing racism in the office. They make comments often, and you notice that they treat people of color in the office different. If you lose your job under the new management, who seems to be racist, this could be cause for concern. You may have a wrongful termination case on your plate — and, at the very least, you'll can seek damages for discrimination.

6. Getting fired on the basis of your immigration status.

If, for example, you lost a position due to your immigration status, this may be considered wrongful termination. Under the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), your employer cannot fire you so long as you are legally allowed to work in the United States.

"Undocumented workers in the United States have employment rights, despite their immigration status," according to WorkplaceFairness.org. "Under federal law, it is illegal to discriminate against any worker, regardless of immigration status. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) prohibits discrimination based on citizenship status."

7. Getting fired on the basis of your age.

If you think that you have been fired from a position because you are "too old" to do it or to do it well, this would be illegal. Your employer cannot legally fire you on the basis of your age. This is considered age discrimination.

So, for example, if your employer calls you into their office and tells you that you are being let go because they believe someone younger would be better-suited for the job, this would be illegal. The same can be said if they call you into their office and let you know that you are being fired because they would like to hire someone who is older with more experience.

If you are being fire because your experience doesn't equip you to do your job well, this may be a different case. You can be fired for not being experienced enough to perform well. But it is illegal to be fired because of your age.

There is no law that protects against wrongful termination. However, there are other ways those who are wrongfully terminated can seek damages. 

Unfortunately, there are no laws to stop employers from wrongfully terminating their employees. Rather, federal or state laws that prohibit employment discrimination may cover wrongful termination.

In fact, because most states have an "at will" policy when it comes to employment, wrongful termination can be hard to prove. In short, under this at will policy, either the employer or the employee can terminate employment at any time without consequence. At-will employees can quit when they want, and employers can fire at-will employees when they want.

Nevertheless, if you feel that you have been wrongfully terminated, you can seek damages.  These damages include the following, according to PLBSH:

  • Economic damages
  • Compensatory damages
  • Punitive damages

Still, there are several factors that may limit the damages that you're entitled to receive.  Seeking help from a wrongful termination attorney can help you determine the type and amount of damages that you can expect given your particular case.

Here's how you can also help your own case:

1. Record your impression of the termination.

Your first order of business is to record how you perceived the termination. When you're fired up in the moment, you can easily black out the little details. So, as son as you get a chance, write down everything that happened. Explain why you think your termination was wrongful in the first place while it's still fresh in your mind. This will help you better keep track of your thoughts and opinions on the matter — and help you to recall them when you need these details down the line.

2. Follow up with your manager in writing.

Follow up with your manager to summarize your discussion you have so that you have a record of your meeting. This is so that you have documentation to prove that you were terminated — and for what reason(s). You'll want this documentation in writing, as having this tangible proof can significantly help your case.

3. Do your research.

Do your homework by getting your facts together. For example, you'll want to first determine whether or not you were singled out by your employer. You can do this by talking to other coworkers. See if they've been warned for the same "mistakes." Or see if they've been "punished" in the same ways. If they haven't been, this could be a sign of discrimination.

Record any signs of discrimination you may come across. You'll want to make sure that you have as much evidence as possible to support your case. You should also gather any materials like communication records, pay stubs, annual reviews, etc.

You'll also want to check whether or not you're working in an at-will state. (Every state except for Montana is at-will.) This means that your employer can terminate you at will any time without consequence — though there are limitations. Your employer cannot fire you for illegal reasons or for you refusing to perform illegal acts. Likewise, it's illegal for your employer to make your workplace so hostile that you quit your job.

And, last but not least, you should look into your contract, employee handbook, and any other materials that you may have gotten when you first landed the job. You 'll want to make sure that you understand all of the terms of your employment and the steps for termination. These should be spelled out in your contract.

4. Speak to an attorney to file a complaint alleging your wrongful termination.

Hire an attorney to help you. Bring everything that you know (and everything that you think you know) to get a professional opinion. Your attorney will be able to help you fill out and file a complaint for wrongful termination. (There are different types of forms for different types of complaints!) From there, they'll also be able to help you proceed with the lawsuit, from performing discovery and sitting for your deposition to opposing the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, entertaining a settlement, and going to trial.

7 misconceptions about wrongful termination

You have a good idea of what wrongful termination is now, but there are several things people who are familiar with the term still misunderstand about wrongful termination. Let's bust a few of the common misconceptions: 

1. Myth: All seemingly unfair termination is wrongful termination.

Fact: Unfortunately, you may not like the reason why you were fired. But that doesn't necessarily mean that you were wrongfully terminated. Not all unfair termination is wrongful termination. Your employer may fire you for reasons with which you don't agree, but they may not necessarily be illegal reasons. It's important to discuss your situation with a wrongful termination attorney who can help you determine whether or not you can receive damages from wrongful termination.

2. Myth: Wrongful termination laws only apply to women and minorities.

Fact: While women and minorities do indeed face workplace discrimination, anyone can face wrongful termination. Anyone can be wrongfully terminated and be entitled to damages if they are. Unfortunately, women and minorities are adversely affected by workplace discrimination, which makes them targets of wrongful termination.

3. Myth: You cannot sue for wrongful termination damages if you quit.

Fact: In some circumstances, you can still sue for wrongful termination damages even if you quit your job. This may be the case if you quit because you deemed the work environment too hostile, for example.

4. Myth: Your employer will give in easily if you sue for wrongful termination.

Fact: While you might assume that your employer would quickly settle to save face and maintain their reputation, this is not always the case. Especially for larger corporations with money to spend on such cases, court can drag on and on. Don't expect an easy win just because it feels like an obvious one.

5. Myth: I have to receive damages if I am wrongfully terminated.

Fact: You may or may not be entitled to damages if you have been wrongfully terminated. The best course of action would be to hire an attorney who can help you determine to what and how much you are entitled.

6. Myth: You'll never be able to prove that you were wrongfully terminated.

Fact: While it can be difficult to prove wrongful termination, it is indeed possible. It's important to do your best to document all instances of discrimination and get your termination in writing. This can help your case.

7. Myth: You cannot be fired for illegal reasons.

Fact: Unfortunately, you can be fired for illegal reasons — and it happens more often than you may care to know. There are no laws that specifically prohibit employers from firing you for any reason they please, but some discrimination laws can protect you. If this does unfortunately happen to you,  you may seek damages with an attorney who can help.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.

This article is to be used for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer legal advice. If you do need legal advice, you should consult an employment attorney.