Wrongful Termination: Definition and Examples

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AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger
April 17, 2024 at 9:17PM UTC

Were you terminated from your job and convinced that you were fired wrongfully? You're not alone.

In fact, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, handles about 700,000 calls and inquiries regarding employment discrimination each year — almost half of which have to do with wrongful termination. As such, the EEOC ends up securing about $404 million dollars from employers each year.

Here's exactly what wrongful termination is, what qualifies as wrongful termination and how you can prove your wrongful termination.

What Is Wrongful Termination?

The term "wrongful termination" refers to when an employer fires or lays off an employee for illegal reasons.
These illegal reasons include the following, according to FindLaw:
  • "Firing in violation of federal and state anti-discrimination laws"
  • "Firing as a form of sexual harassment"
  • "Firing in violation of oral and written employment agreements"
  • "Firing in violation of labor laws, including collective bargaining laws"
  • "Firing in retaliation for the employee's having filed a complaint or claim against the employer"
The most common types of cases for wrongful termination include:
  • Discrimination (based on race, sex, age, religion or other factors)
  • Sexual Harassment
  • Breach of Contract
  • Retaliation
  • Invasion of Privacy
It's important to note that there are no specific laws that actually protect employees who have been wrongfully terminated. Instead, federal or state laws that prohibit employment discrimination may cover wrongful termination.

What Qualifies as Wrongful Termination?

As mentioned, wrongful termination happens when someone is fired or laid off for reasons that are discriminatory, in violation of agreements or laws, or in retaliation. With that said, here are three examples what qualifies as wrongful termination:
  1. You were fired because you wouldn't engage in sexual activity with your boss, which is a form of sexual harassment.
  2. You were fired because of your gender, race or sexuality, which are all forms of discrimination.
  3. You were fired in retaliation for asking for an equal pay raise.

What Does a Wrongful Termination Settlement Look Like?

Now that you know what wrongful termination is and what qualifies as wrongful termination, you might be wondering, what is the average settlement for wrongful termination? 

"Some of these violations carry statutory penalties, while others will result in the employer's payment of damages based on the terminated employee's lost wages and other expenses," FindLaw explains. "Certain wrongful termination cases may raise the possibility that the employer pay punitive damages to the terminated employee, while other cases may carry the prospect of holding more than one wrongdoer responsible for damages."

These settlements usually amount to a lot of money. The average out-of-court settlement is about $40,000, according to the EEOC. Specifically, 10 percent of wrongful termination cases result in $1 million dollar settlements, and the court rules the majority of these cases (about 67 percent) in the plaintiff's favor when they're taken to litigation.

How Do You Prove Wrongful Termination?

If you're wondering, is it hard to prove wrongful termination? The answer is, simply, yes.

Because most states have an "at will" policy when it comes to employment, wrongful termination is difficult to prove. Basically, under this at will policy, either the employer or the employee can terminate employment at any time without consequence.

That said, there are still illegal reasons to terminate an employee. So you can, indeed, prove wrongful termination if you follow the right steps. Here's how to prove that you were wrongfully terminated.

1. Record Your Impression of the Termination

First things first, write down everything you feel could be wrong about your termination while it's all still fresh in your head. You're likely emotional after just being fired, but it's important that you keep track of your thoughts during this time. 

2. Follow up With Your Manager

Follow up with your manager summarizing the discussion you have so that you have a record of the meeting. This is so that you have documentation.

3. Get Your Facts Together

Getting your facts together means a number of things.
First, find out if you were singled out by talking to other coworkers who've made the same mistakes as you. If they're still working for the company, you might not have received equal punishment, which could be a sign of discrimination.
You also want to determine if you're working in an at-will state (every state except for Montana is at will), which would mean that your employer can terminate your employment at any time without consequence. Of course, there are limitations to this — and you'll need to know these:
  • Your employer can't fire you for one of the aforementioned illegal reasons.
  • You cannot be fired for refusing to perform an illegal act.
  • It is illegal for your employer to practice "constructive discharge," which means that they've made your work environment so uncomfortable that you'd quit.
Then you want to take a look at your contract if you signed one, as well as employee handbooks and policy manuals to understand all of the terms of your employment and steps for termination, which should be spelled out in these.
And, last but not least, you should gather all of your materials such as any official communication records, pay stubs, annual reviews, etc.

4. Speak to an Attorney to File a Complaint Alleging Wrongful Termination

Bring everything you know (and think you know) and your materials over to an attorney. Your attorney will help you to fill out and file a complaint alleging wrongful termination. It's important that you speak with an attorney about this because there are different forums for different types of complaints. 
It's important that you file your complaint in a timely manner, too, because there are limitations here. In California, for example, you must file suit within four years, while in Illinois, you have 10 years. 
From there, you'll have to proceed with the lawsuit, performing discovery, sitting for your deposition, opposing the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, entertaining a settlement and then, if necessary, going to trial. Your attorney should walk you through all of this, as this process will vary largely based on your case, the employer's argument and whether or not you have to go to trial (if a settlement is agreed upon, you won't have to).

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.

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