Millions of Americans have lost their jobs over the past 10 years. Some of them may believe that wrongful motives such as discrimination or revenge played a part in their firing. But when does the law actually protect workers from being wrongfully terminated?
In New York and many other states, a job offered to an employee for no specific period of months or years is deemed to be “indefinite” in time, and “at-will.” This could mean that an employee with no long-term contract may be fired at the will of the employer, subject to any limitations in the employment agreement to termination “for cause,” or in compliance with a collective bargaining agreement or other provisions of law. Public employees are often treated differently, and may challenge their termination, or even a resignation which they tendered under the threat of a wrongful termination, and the termination may be reversed in court if it “was made in violation of lawful procedure, was affected by an error of law or was arbitrary and capricious or an abuse of discretion.”
An employer may not fire certain employees in bad faith for opposing illegal practices. For example, it’s unlawful in New York for a catering service to fire an employee for expressing concerns over withheld tips. In other states, it may be unlawful to fire an employee for objecting to or declining to participate in an illegal or fraudulent activity or practice or in an activity or practice that threatens public health or safety or the environment.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, being fired for discriminatory reasons may create a right to recover damages for emotional trauma, attorneys’ fees, and lost pay. The plaintiff must, in addition to being a member of a protected group and terminated from a position for which he or she was qualified, have evidence that the termination “occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of discrimination.” This evidence may include the fact that “similarly situated” employees of another race, sex, familial status, etc., were not terminated, or that the reason given by the employer for the termination were a false “pretext” for illegal motives.
When a boss or coworker attempts to “make an employee’s submission to sexual demands a condition of . . . employment,” that may be sexual harassment. In addition, a severe or pervasive event or series of events within a workplace that a reasonable person would regard as hostile or abusive may justify bringing a “hostile work environment” claim for sexual harassment. Federal, state and city laws prohibit retaliating against an employee for filing a complaint, opposing sexual harassment in another way, or opposing many other unlawful practices.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) makes it unlawful to terminate a qualified individual because he or she develops a disability that can be reasonably accommodated. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “an employer cannot fire an employee who has a disability” unless (1) the “termination is unrelated to the disability,” (2) the “employee does not meet legitimate requirements for the job, such as performance or production standards, with or without a reasonable accommodation,” or (3) due to “the employee’s disability, he or she poses a direct threat to health or safety in the workplace.” In addition, the Family and Medical Leave Act states that an employer must not terminate a worker for attempting to take a medical leave allowed by federal law.
Tens of millions of Americans selflessly render unpaid health or home care for their family and friends. Sometimes, they need to take family or medical leave to balance their work life with their obligations to their loved ones. The law aims to protect many of them in their dual roles by stating that if an employer is covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, terminating an employee who is entitled to a family leave for reasons related to taking the leave (or attempting to take it) is wrongful termination.
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act does not permit firing workers who are at least 40 years old because of their age. Treating workers less favorably in any material way because of their age may be disparate treatment, which is discrimination. In addition, disparate impact of policies may be age discrimination – for example, when “a specific, facially neutral employment practice caused a significantly disproportionate adverse impact based on age,” or a facially neutral policy “disproportionately impacted” a subgroup of employees over age 40.
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), 38 U.S.C. § 4301 et seq. protects workers from being terminated because they enlist in the armed services under the Delayed Entry Program or previously enlisted in the armed services before returning to work, enlist or continue to serve in the National Guard or Reserve units with periodic training duties, or suffer from injuries in their service which the employer could reasonably accommodate but does not. The Supreme Court has concluded that this law applies to termination, demotions or other job actions “motivated by antimilitary animus,” or dislike of service status.
It is wrongful for any person to terminate a participant in or beneficiary of certain employee benefit plans for certain reasons related to benefits due under the plan. Firing an employee to prevent his or her pension from vesting, for example, violates the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). Letting an employee go because of the amount of covered health care claims may also be unlawful.
Simply because an employee has been fired for their right reasons–or reasons which the law permits anyway–does not mean that he or she may not have a legal claim against the employer. There may be a claim for unpaid wages or benefits. Such claims may sometimes be increased under statutes prohibiting fraud or protecting workers’ right to earn minimum, overtime, and fair wages. In overtime cases, for example, “Double damages are the norm, ….”
This is not a complete picture of the factors that labor and employment lawyers examine when judging whether a termination was wrongful. It does provide some examples of those factors, however.
Workers who think that they have been wrongfully terminated–or that they are still owed wages or benefits from a job they lost, should contact an experienced New York Employment Attorney today to have their case thoroughly evaluated. Looking at a worker’s particular situation may reveal that laws are broken and that there are steps that may be taken to make things right. At Leeds Brown Law, we pride ourselves in our ability to represent clients who have been unlawfully terminated or retaliated against and successfully manage their case to secure them the damages they are entitled to and protect their careers. Feel free to contact us via email or by phone at (212) 661-4370 or (516) 873-9550.
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