Every state in the US (except Montana) has “at-will” employment laws that give employers the freedom to terminate employees at any time, for any reason. In fact, employers aren’t even required to offer a reason for an employee’s termination. While this doesn’t provide much protection for employees, there are four exceptions that qualify for wrongful termination and open the door for civil claims against the employer:
- When an employee is terminated due to race, color, national origin, gender, religion, pregnancy, age, or disability
- When an employee is terminated in retaliation for participating in a protected activity
- When an employer breaks an employment contract
- When an employee is terminated in violation of public policy
Employers are prohibited from terminating an employee on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, religion, pregnancy, age (over 40), or disability. All of these classes are protected by both state and federal law. If you have been wrongfully terminated due to discrimination based on any of these protected classes, you’ll need to file a formal complaint with the state and/or the federal government. It’s not necessary to file a complaint with both, as the agencies involved have a file-sharing agreement if you wish to pursue cross-claims with both the state and federal agencies.
The US Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency charged with administering and enforcing anti-discrimination laws in the workplace. The EEOC operates under the federal employment laws established by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). You have 300 days to submit a claim with the EEOC through their website.
In the state of Arizona, the Civil Rights Division (CRD) of the Attorney General’s Office administers and enforces the state’s anti-discrimination laws in the workplace. The CRD operates under the Arizona Civil Rights Act. You have 180 days to submit a claim with the CRD, and you’ll need to file a complaint in person at one of their local offices.
Regardless of which agency you choose to work with, the process is fairly similar once you’ve submitted the complaint. You’ll have the opportunity to meet for an interview with a local agent who will assess the merit of your complaint. If the agent believes there has been an infraction, the agency will launch a formal investigation. Assuming the investigation finds sufficient evidence of discriminatory practices, the agency can either reach a settlement agreement with the employer, or they can pursue justice through litigation in court. Either way, you will be entitled to a portion of the settlement or court judgement.
Of course, you also have the right to seek compensation for damages from your employer through civil action. Begin the process by scheduling a consultation with an employment law attorney. The attorney will review your case, calculate the value of potential damages, and file a lawsuit against the company in state or federal court. Keep in mind that you’ll need to file the civil lawsuit within 30 days of your formal complaint with the EEOC or CRD.
Retaliation claims (i.e. whistleblower protection) generally fall under the umbrella of discrimination claims. Federal and state laws prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who engage in protected activities such as:
- Answering questions during an employer investigation of alleged harassment
- Asking managers or coworkers about salary information to uncover potentially discriminatory wages
- Communicating with a supervisor or manager about employment discrimination or harassment
- Filing or being a witness in a CRD charge, complaint, investigation, or lawsuit
- Filing or being a witness in an EEOC charge, complaint, investigation, or lawsuit
- Filing or being a witness in a workplace safety charge
- Refusing to follow orders that would result in discrimination
- Requesting accommodation of a disability or for a religious practice
- Requesting a safety inspection
- Resisting sexual advances, or intervening to protect others from unwanted sexual advances
In most of these scenarios, the same rules of discrimination claims apply to retaliation claims—you’ll need to file a complaint with the CRD within 180 days, or you’ll need to file a complaint with the EEOC within 300 days. The only exception is when you’re dealing with workplace safety claims or inspections. If you are terminated in retaliation for requesting a safety inspection or participating in a workplace safety investigation, you’ll need to file a whistleblower claim with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Note that the OSHA has a significantly shorter statute of limitations and requires you to file a complaint within 30 days of the alleged reprisal.
Employment contracts always supersede at-will employment laws. An employment contract can be a signed agreement between the employer and employee, or it can be an unsigned agreement in the form of company policy that’s codified in the employee handbook. Employment contracts can also be implied under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement. In any case, if the agreement contains restrictions on what an employee can be terminated for, the employer is held to those terms. When an employer terminates an employee in violation of that agreement the employer is guilty of contract infringement, and the wrongfully terminated employee can seek civil action in state court. In the state of Arizona, wrongfully terminated employees have up to six years to file a civil suit for breach of a written contract, and up to three years to file a civil suit for a breach of an oral contract.
Violation of public policy claims
Employers are prohibited from infringing on an employee’s legal rights. For example, when an employer fires an employee for voting, using qualified FMLA leave, or refusing to follow orders that would result in breaking the law, the employer is guilty of wrongful termination. In these situations, the employee can seek civil action by filing a personal injury (tort) lawsuit. Employees can also file a personal injury lawsuit against employers who have defamed the employee through slander and/or libel (i.e. if a prospective employer calls your former employer for a reference, and your old manager tells malicious lies to deliberately prevent you from getting the new job).
If you have been wrongfully terminated in violation of public policy, or if you have been injured by defamation, you can file a personal injury suit in state court within two years of the occurrence.
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.