In the state of Arizona, the employment relationship is considered “at-will” unless there is a written employment contract or collective bargaining agreement that says otherwise. Under at-will employment laws, the employment relationship is voluntarily severable by the employer and the employee at any time, for any reason. While this leaves a vast amount of freedom for employers to terminate employees for just about any reason (or no reason at all), employees are still protected against wrongful termination that violates other federal, state, and local laws.
The challenge with wrongful termination cases is often finding sufficient evidence to prove your case. Most employers understand that they can’t fire an employee based on discrimination, retaliation, etc., and it’s not too difficult to mask unlawful termination with lawful reasons. In order to walk away with a successful wrongful termination investigation or lawsuit, you’ll need to prove that the employer acted with an illegal motive.
Evidence of wrongful termination
There are two types of evidence in a wrongful termination case: direct evidence, and circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence is always best—maybe an incriminating email from a superior, firsthand testimony from a reliable witness, a clear violation of written company policies established in the employee handbook, or a history of positive performance reviews that stand in stark contrast to the purported reason you were terminated. These directly support the truth of your position without the need for additional evidence or inference.
Unfortunately, direct evidence is difficult to come by in wrongful termination cases. Instead, circumstantial evidence is much more common. Circumstantial evidence normally relies on an inference to connect it to a conclusion of fact. In a wrongful termination case, a good example may be proof that other employees who are engaged in the same activity (e.g. tardiness, poor performance) aren’t disciplined or terminated as you were. Another example could be proving to the court that the company failed to follow established company policies when it terminated you. If you were accused of harassment and company policy dictates a thorough investigation before disciplinary actions may be taken, you may have a case for discrimination if you were fired without an investigation. Generally speaking, the more circumstantial evidence you have, the stronger your case will be.
Helpful advice to strengthen your case
If you suspect that something is taking a turn for the worse with your employment relationship—possibly rumored layoffs, poor company performance, or a deteriorating relationship with your manager—it’s a good idea to get your ducks in a line as soon as possible. It’s usually easier to gather supporting evidence and documentation before you are terminated, while you’re still (hopefully) on good terms with your employer.
- Keep a paper trail – make a record of important work-related events like promotions, demotions, pay raises, pay decreases, disciplinary action, commendations, performance reviews, and even informal comments about your work from your manager, supervisor, or company executives. Be sure to jot down the location, date, and time of the event, along with notes on who was involved and whether there were any witnesses to corroborate your version of the events. Wherever possible, try to include documentation of these events, including memos, written company policies, and written performance reviews. That said, don’t take or copy any documents that you don’t have a legal right to. If your employer determines that you have taken confidential or off-limits documents, you may find yourself in legal trouble down the road.
- Get your personnel file – request your personnel file and photocopy the important sections, especially any reports or reviews. If you’re afraid that your employer will attempt to tamper with your personnel file after you are terminated, make an extra copy and mail it to yourself. As long as the parcel is properly sealed and shipped via certified mail, the court will accept this as officially-dated proof of how your personnel report looked before the employer tampered with it.
- Print copies of your paycheck stubs – many employers save digital copies of these in their human resources software, but you’ll lose access to these when you are terminated. In order to sue for unpaid wages and/or damages, the court will need to have an accurate record of your compensation. It’s best to copy all of your paystubs as far back as you can go, though the court will probably only consider your wages over the past year when determining back pay.
- Request a copy of the employee handbook and/or manual – formal company policies that are written and established by the company are considered a written agreement that is enforceable in court.
- Request a copy of the employment contract – if you have a written contract with the employer, be sure to get a signed copy of this for your records.
- Request a copy of any applicable collective bargaining agreement – if you are covered by an agreement with a labor organization (union), you’ll want to get a copy of this agreement for your records, too.
After you are terminated by your employer, it’s important to document the termination. While it’s completely understandable to be emotionally overwhelmed on the day you receive your termination notice, it will be extremely beneficial to your case if you can accurately document everything as soon as possible.
- Record your impressions – take a few minutes to write down the circumstances of your termination as soon as possible while the details are still fresh in your mind. Try to piece together a timeline of the events, including when you received your notice of termination and when you were asked to leave. Be sure to write down the names of everyone involved, as the court will want witnesses to corroborate your version of the events.
- Keep copies of your termination documents – if you received a letter of termination, keep a copy for your records. If it’s a digital copy you may want to print it off, especially if it’s saved in your work email (since you’ll likely lose access to your work email by the end of your last working day).
- Request a written explanation for your termination – in the event you file a complaint or lawsuit alleging wrongful termination, it’s critical to document why you were terminated (or at least why your employer claims you were terminated). You can request a confirmation of the reasons for your termination with a simple email to your manager, or you can mail a formal request to your employer. In either case, you should clearly state your understanding of why you were terminated and ask the employer to verify the accuracy of your understanding (for example, “it’s my understanding that I was terminated because I converted sales leads at less than 20% for the last 30 days—is that correct?”).
- Speak with coworkers to determine if you’ve been singled out – if you suspect that you have been terminated based on discrimination against a protected characteristic, you should check with your coworkers to see if they’re aware of any bias or discrimination. It’s most helpful if a coworker can testify that he or she overheard a manager or supervisor directly acknowledging discrimination, but circumstantial evidence can still be helpful in proving your case. If you were terminated for a specific reason (e.g. attendance, performance, etc.), look for examples where another employee or group of employees committed the same mistakes but did not receive the same punishment as you.
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.