Most states protect the right to “at-will” employment, meaning employment is a voluntary agreement for both the employer and the employee. Either party is free to sever the employment agreement at any time, for any reason.

It’s an important distinction for employees as it maintains one’s free agency to work wherever they desire, but it can get a little tricky when it comes to why an employer severs the employment agreement. While “at-will” employment allows employers to terminate employees freely, an employer can’t terminate an employee if it infringes on the employee’s rights guaranteed under state and federal law.

Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Termination

In the judicial system, a statute of limitations dictates how long a party has to file a suit or take action against another party. Most of the time, the clock starts ticking the day of the infraction. In this case, that’s the day the employee is terminated.

When an employee is wrongfully terminated according to federal discrimination laws, the employee has 180 days to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

If the employee is wrongfully terminated due to a qualified unpaid leave of absence protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the employee has up to two years to file a complaint with the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Wage and Hour Division (WHD). If an employee is wrongfully terminated according to state law, the state of Arizona allows up to one year to file a complaint with the appropriate state commission (ARS 12-541).

Wrongful Termination Cases

While there are a number of different circumstances where an employee can be wrongfully terminated, there are five types of cases that are specifically addressed by state and federal law:

  • Discrimination
  • Disability
  • Retaliation
  • Personal and family medical leave
  • Contract-infringement

Discrimination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on race, color, religion, national origin, or gender. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) adds that an employee cannot be discriminated against based on their age if they’re 40 or older, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) offers additional protection against discrimination based on a woman’s pregnancy or maternal healthcare. Altogether, these federal laws mean that an employer cannot make important employment decisions based on these discriminating factors, including hiring, firing, promoting, demoting, and disciplining.

Title VII also mandates that an employer needs to provide reasonable accommodations for an employee’s deeply-held spiritual beliefs and practices (e.g. allowing additional short breaks to pray, or not working on their Sabbath day). Employers are not required to make accommodations that place an undue burden on the business, but an employer will be held responsible for wrongfully firing an employee over their religious practices and requests for reasonable accommodations.

If you have been wrongfully terminated due to discrimination, you have the right to file a complaint with the EEOC within 180 days of your termination. Once you’ve filed the complaint, you have 90 days to initiate a civil lawsuit under the federal law. The state of Arizona also has its own anti-discrimination laws, which allow up to one year to file a complaint and/or civil lawsuit against a former employer.

So, even if you miss the window for the federal complaint with the EEOC, you still have plenty of time to file a complaint with the state’s Civil Rights Division.

Disability

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on any actual or perceived disability. Employers are also required to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled employees. The employer should seek the employee’s input on what accommodations would be preferable, but the employer is under no obligation to provide accommodations that place undue financial or operational pressure on the business.

As with cases of discrimination, you can file a federal complaint with the EEOC within 180 days of your wrongful termination. Because the state of Arizona has its own anti-discrimination laws for disabled persons, you have up to one year to file a complaint with the state’s Civil Rights Division.

Retaliation

The EEOC also enforces against employer retaliation, which is one of the most common types of wrongful termination disputes. Federal law dictates a set of protected activities and guarantees that an employee can’t be terminated or disciplined in retaliation for taking part in any of the protected activities. These protected activities include:

  • Answering questions in the course of an employer investigation of alleged harassment
  • Asking coworkers or managers about their salary to uncover potentially discriminatory wages
  • Communicating with a manager or supervisor about harassment or employment discrimination
  • Filing or serving as a witness in an EEOC charge, complaint, investigation, or lawsuit
  • Refusing to follow instructions that would result in discrimination
  • Requesting accommodation for a religious practice or disability
  • Resisting sexual advances and intervening to protect others who are subject to unwanted sexual advances

If you are wrongfully terminated in retaliation for any of these protected activities, you have 180 days to file a complaint with the EEOC. After filing the complaint, you’ll have 90 days to file a civil lawsuit against the employer.

Personal and Family Medical Leave

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employees who have been with a company for at least one year and who have worked at least 1,250 hours in the preceding year can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave. The following personal and family medical situations qualify eligible employees for FMLA leave:

  • Adoption or foster care of a child (within one year of placement)
  • Birth of a child
  • Caring for a child, parent, or spouse with a chronic health condition
  • Caring for a newborn child (within one year of birth)
  • Chronic health conditions that inhibits an employee from fulfilling their job
  • Emergency circumstances where the employee’s child, parent, or spouse is with the military on covered active duty

If you are wrongfully terminated as a result of taking qualified FMLA leave, you can file a complaint with the Wage and Hour Division within two years of your termination.

Contract-infringement

Employment contracts are regulated and enforced by the states. In the state of Arizona, an employer can’t violate the requirements in an employment contract, nor can they breach any company policies listed in the employee manual/handbook.

Employees who are wrongfully terminated in a breach of contract have up to six years to file a civil suit regarding a written contract, and up to three years to file a civil suit regarding an oral contract.

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.

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