Wrongful termination usually involves a breach of federal, state, or local employment laws, so it’s best to work with an attorney who specializes in employment law. Most cases of wrongful termination are settled outside of court, but large cases with significant damages can go to trial. If you believe there’s a good chance your case will require going to court, you’ll want to choose an employment law attorney who has experience with litigation.
What is wrongful termination?
Arizona is an at-will employment state, which means that the employment agreement between employers and employees is voluntary. Employees are allowed to quit at any time, and employers are allowed to terminate employees for any reason that isn’t illegal. Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave much protection for employees, as employers can terminate employees for performance, attendance, misconduct, poor fit, or even something as broad as “not working out.” To be wrongfully terminated, an employee needs to lose their job because of one of the following illegal actions:
- Discrimination – employers can’t make any employment decisions (hiring, firing, disciplining, promoting, demoting, etc.) on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, genetics, disability, age (if over 40), or pregnancy. Many states have additional laws protecting against discrimination due to gender identity, sexual orientation, and marital status.
- Retaliation – employees have the right to file complaints against unlawful activity without being retaliated against by their employer. Employees also have the right to participate in employment-law-related investigations and lawsuits without fear of retaliation.
- Violation of public policy – employers can’t fire employees for exercising their legal rights (e.g. the right to vote), refusing to take orders that would cause them to break the law, or reporting illegal activity.
- Breach of contract – employment contracts supersede at-will employment laws, so employees with an employment contract can only be fired for the reasons outlined in the contract.
When should you hire an employment law attorney?
If you suspect you have been wrongfully terminated by your employer, it’s important to consult with an employment law attorney who can review your situation, determine if you have a case, and help you seek the right type of action against your employer. You should consider hiring an attorney if any of the following circumstances apply:
- You have a contract with the employer that limits how and when they can terminate you
- You recently exercised a legal right (unpaid time off with FMLA, voting, etc.)
- You recently submitted a complaint of illegal activity
- You recently submitted a complaint of unsafe working conditions
- You recently submitted a complaint of harassment or discrimination in the workplace
- You recently told a manager, supervisor, or executive that you are pregnant or disabled (referred to as protected characteristics)
- Your employer has made statements or taken actions that imply you were terminated for discriminatory reasons
Employment law attorneys can also help you file a complaint with the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). You are required to submit a federal complaint before filing a civil suit against your employer, and it’s helpful to have an attorney that can help you present a strong case in both the federal complaint and your civil case.
Which federal laws can apply to wrongful termination?
The following federal laws may apply to your wrongful termination case under certain conditions:
- Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) – if you are older than 40 and your age was a factor in your termination
- Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) – if your actual or perceived disability was a factor in your termination, or if the employer refused to provide reasonable accommodations for your disability
- Equal Pay Act (EPA) – if you were terminated for asking coworkers about their salary to uncover unequal pay between male and female employees
- Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) – if you recently submitted a complaint regarding unpaid wages, overtime pay, or child labor violations
- Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) – if you recently discussed, applied for, or took unpaid leave for qualified purposes
- Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) – if you recently filed a complaint about unsafe work conditions, or if you took part in an investigation or civil suit regarding workplace safety
- Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) – if you recently revealed to your employer that you are pregnant, or that you may need time off due to qualified maternal health issues
- Title III of the Consumer Credit Protection Act (Title III) – if you were terminated due to your wages being garnished by a creditor
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) – if you were terminated due to discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, or gender, or if your employer refused to provide reasonable accommodations for your deeply-held religious beliefs
What is a release of claims waiver?
A release of claims waiver is a legal document that forfeits your right sue your employer. Many employers require terminated employees to sign release waivers before receiving their severance package. Some employers offer two severance packages, and the employee can receive the higher package if they voluntarily sign a release waiver. If you suspect that you have been wrongfully terminated, you should consult with an attorney before you sign a release waiver. Once signed, these documents are extremely difficult to undo, even if your employer is guilty of violating employment laws.
Types of recovery in a wrongful termination case
In a wrongful termination lawsuit, you may be entitled to damages such as lost wages, lost benefits, higher medical expenses, and in some cases emotional distress. All of these damages will be calculated based on the time between your termination and when you accept a new job with similar compensation, or when you are expected to be rehired at a similar rate of pay. Punitive damages rarely apply in wrongful termination cases. Most successful wrongful termination actions are settled outside of court, usually by reaching a lump-sum settlement or increasing the employee’s severance package.
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.
Call our Employment Law team at (480) 464-1111 to discuss your case today.