Is it Hard to Prove Wrongful Termination?


Every state except Montana is an “at-will” employment state, meaning employment is always voluntary for employees and employers. An employee is free to quit their job at any time, for any reason, and an employer is free to fire employees at any time, for any reason that doesn’t involve discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. Most companies will offer a legitimate reason for firing employees—such as performance, attendance, or misconduct—but employers are under no obligation to do so. If your manager believes you are a “poor fit” within the company or your hiring just “isn’t working out,” there’s nothing to stop the employer from legally firing you.

That said, there are situations where an employee is fired illegally, and there are federal laws to protect against wrongful termination. There are four circumstances that generally qualify for wrongful termination:

  • Breach of contract – if you have an employment contract that specifies how and when an employer can fire you, at-will employment law doesn’t apply. The employer is bound to the terms of the contract, and if the employer breaches the contract in the course of firing you that would be considered wrongful termination.
  • Discrimination – employers are prohibited from firing employees on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, genetics, disability, age (over 40), or pregnancy. Most states have additional laws that prohibit employers from firing someone due to their marital status, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
  • Exercising legal rights – employees can’t be fired for exercising a legal right such as voting or using unpaid time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
  • Retaliation – this is known as the “whistleblower protection.” Federal employment laws that protect against discrimination and workplace safety include provisions that prohibit an employer from firing someone because they filed a complaint, participated in a complaint, participated in an investigation, or participated in a lawsuit against the company. Employees also have the right to ask their coworkers about their compensation, as long as the questioning is a good-faith attempt to uncover unequal pay or discrimination. Employees who file a complaint or criminal charge for sexual harassment or a hostile work environment are also protected against employer retaliation.

If you suspect that your termination involved discrimination, retaliation, breach of contract, or exercising your legal rights, you may have a wrongful termination case against your employer. You should meet with an employment law attorney who can assess your case, help you gather evidence of your claim, and take the appropriate action against the employer.

Proving wrongful termination

For a wrongful termination lawsuit to be successful, you’ll need to prove that your manager and/or employer acted with illegal motives. This can be a difficult task as employers and managers will rarely admit they had illegal motives when they fired you. In the majority of wrongful termination cases, the employer masks their illegal motivation with a legitimate reason for termination (e.g. a sexist employer may fire a female employee for attendance, or a racist employer may fire a Mexican employee for alleged misconduct).

Circumstantial evidence

Most wrongful termination cases will rely on circumstantial evidence to prove their point. As with any legal case, the more evidence you have the better. For example, if a male employee and a female employee are both frequently late to work, but only the female employee is fired for attendance, it may be wrongful termination but it’s a weak case. If there were five male employees who were late in the previous example and only the female was fired, you’d have a much stronger case.

Evidence of false pretenses

Considering how many cases of wrongful termination are masked by another reason for termination, it helps your case if you can prove you were fired under false pretenses. For example, if you’re fired for allegedly cursing at a customer over the phone, you can pull the recording of the call to prove that you didn’t curse and therefore aren’t guilty of misconduct. Similarly, if you’re fired because you allegedly harassed an employee, you can ask that employee to confirm or deny the charge. If the employee testifies that you didn’t harass them, that may prove that the accusation is false.

That said, this type of evidence is fairly weak and likely won’t stand on its own. Even if your manager fired you under false pretenses, they may have actually fired you because you weren’t a good fit or because you disrupted the team’s balance, which are both allowable in at-will employment states. Evidence of false pretenses is therefore only valuable in proving your wrongful determination claim if it’s paired with other evidence of discrimination or retaliation.

Evidence that the company failed to follow its investigative protocols

Most companies have a strict procedure for how to handle claims of discrimination and harassment. The actual process will vary from company to company, but it’s common for the human resources department to thoroughly investigate claims and interview everyone who was involved in the alleged activity. In the course of these investigations, human resource employees typically take detailed notes and fill out forms to document the process. If you were fired for alleged discrimination, harassment, or other misconduct, and if the employer failed to follow its own protocols before firing you, that’s a big red flag for wrongful termination.

Employee personnel file

Another important factor that may influence your case is your employee personnel file. If you have a documented history of complaints, performance issues, attendance infractions, or other misconduct, it’s not much of a stretch to assume that the employer was justified in firing you. On the other hand, if you have a spotless record with recommendations from coworkers and supervisors, that speaks to your character and may help to prove that you were wrongfully terminated.

Applicable employment laws

There are a number of federal laws that may apply to wrongful termination cases. The following are of particular importance:

  • Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) – if your employer was pressuring you to work off the clock or put in overtime hours without proper pay
  • Equal Pay Act (EPA) – if men and women who work in the same position are not receiving equal pay
  • Title III of the Consumer Credit Protection Act (Title III) – if you were fired due to your wages being garnished
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) – if you were fired for discriminatory reasons due to race, color, religion, national origin, or gender; if you were retaliated against for participating in a discrimination or harassment complaint; if your employer refused to provide reasonable accommodations for your deeply-held religious practices
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) – if you are over age 40 and your employer considered your age when firing you
  • Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) – if you recently reported unsafe work conditions, requested a safety inspection, or participated in a workplace safety investigation
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) – if you were fired because you became pregnant
  • Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) – if you were fired because of an actual or perceived disability; if your employer refused to provide reasonable accommodations for your disability
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) – if you were fired for taking qualified unpaid leave due to personal or family illness

Need Help With An Employment Law Issue?

The state of Arizona is a great place to live and work, but knowing the employment laws will help you a lot. Whether you are a newcomer to the state or a lifelong resident, understanding your workplace protections is good for your career, and the more you know, the better.

Employment law issues can cause extreme distress and can affect productivity on the job. If you are being harassed at work, or dealing with any other employment issue, consider talking to our AZ employment law team to help you settle your case.

Call our Employment Law team at (480) 464-1111 to discuss your case today.

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