Wrongful termination is one of the most traumatic things a professional can experience. Whether discrimination, retaliation, or a contract breach, wrongful termination can negatively affect your professional reputation, mental health, and career prospects. It’s important to understand what constitutes wrongful termination to determine whether or not you should pursue legal action. This guide will provide insights into what qualifies and what you can do to move forward.
Types of Wrongful Termination
There are several different forms of wrongful termination. If you suspect that an employer has discriminated against you based on age, race, or gender, this is an example of wrongful termination. If you brought illegal activity or harassment to management and were subsequently fired, this also qualifies. Below, we’ll examine various forms of wrongful termination to help you see if this applies to your unique situation.
Discrimination based on race, gender, age, or religion
Discrimination in the workplace is far more common than one might think. Although many companies are forward-thinking and inclusive, this is not always the case. If you’ve experienced inappropriate comments and emails or noticed specific types of trends in terms of hiring and firing, these all classify as examples of discrimination. When you see a pattern, it’s important to assess and document it.
One notable example occurred in Corona, California, where a manufacturing plant fired its sole black employee to mitigate racial tensions. The plaintiff was subject to a multitude of derogatory comments from coworkers, and despite a positive performance review, the company opted to terminate his employment. A jury found that the company had deliberately discriminated against the plaintiff and awarded him over $3.5M in damages. In this case, the plaintiff had documentation and witnesses to corroborate their story, which was essential in securing a favorable verdict.
Discrimination due to mental or physical disabilities
Although workers are protected under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), companies do not always comply with these legal and ethical standards. One of the more famous examples occurred in 2021 when Walmart was required to pay over $125M for its treatment of disabled employees. The plaintiff was Marlo Spaeth, a former employee with Down Syndrome. Due to changes to the schedule, Spaeth could no longer adequately perform the role. Rather than accommodate the worker’s disability, Walmart opted to terminate their employment. This is a clear example of an employer discriminating against an employee due to a cognitive disability. The court subsequently ruled in favor of the plaintiff.
Wrongful Termination Due to Harassment
When an employee files a complaint about workplace harassment, the company doesn’t always side with the victim. In 1998, Nancy Drew Suders resigned from her position with the Pennsylvania State Police due to sexual harassment in the workplace. After failing to receive help from the EEOC, Nancy Suders filed a lawsuit with the District Court. Although her initial verdict was unfavorable, the case ultimately reached the Supreme Court, where they ruled in her favor 8-1. Although filing a wrongful termination lawsuit can be a difficult and traumatic experience, there are many examples of victims receiving legal justice.
Documentation and Evidence are Paramount
To prove wrongful termination, you need tangible evidence and documentation. If an employer has proof your termination wasn’t unlawful and you have no evidence to support your case, you’ll be unlikely to win any legal settlement. If you notice a trend, even small comments, it’s important to document them for your records. Despite being less than ideal, you do not want to find yourself in a situation where you have been relieved of your duties unjustly while the organization is allowed to continue its unlawful work practices.
Be Sure Your Case Qualifies as Wrongful Termination
It’s important to be sure that your case qualifies as unlawful termination before pursuing any legal action. This requires an honest assessment of your performance, your experience at the company, and its culture. If an employer can point to data, documentation, or performance issues, this can significantly impact your chances of receiving a favorable verdict in court. Performance issues don’t negate workplace discrimination. If you strongly believe that discrimination was a factor in your termination, you have grounds to pursue compensation.
How to Proceed With a Wrongful Termination Case
If you are considering taking legal action for wrongful termination, it is recommended that you speak with an attorney who specializes in this area of law. If you have a discrimination case, the next step is to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). These cases can often take years to resolve, as multiple steps exist before a trial occurs.
Once the case moves into the discovery phase, both parties present documentation and evidence. In addition to depositions, you, the defendant, and witnesses will provide statements regarding the circumstances surrounding your wrongful dismissal.This is why it’s imperative to gather substantial documentation and evidence before moving forward with any type of legal action, as the foundations of your case reside here.
Motion for summary judgment
Following the discovery phase, your past employer will likely file a motion for summary judgment. This is where the defendant will attempt to have your case dismissed due to lack of evidence or cause. The court will then decide whether or not the case should proceed based on the evidence gathered during the discovery phase.
Settlement and trial
If the court rejects the motion for summary judgment, there are one of two outcomes. In most instances, a settlement will be negotiated between both parties using an independent arbitrator. If both the plaintiff and defendant agree to the terms, the lawsuit will be settled here, and you’ll receive compensation for wrongful termination. However, if a settlement is not reached within a certain period, the case will proceed to trial. This is undoubtedly the riskier path, as you have no guarantee that the jury will reach a favorable verdict, and you may be liable for the opposing party’s legal fees. In fact, research shows that workers only win 1% of employment cases involving discrimination, harassment, and retaliation at trial.