Arizona is an at-will employment state, so employers have the right to terminate employees at any time, for any reason. That’s a pretty broad mandate that doesn’t leave much protection for employees, but there are a handful of circumstances that can be considered wrongful termination. These situations generally involve discrimination, retaliation, or a breach of contract.
What constitutes wrongful termination?
For a case to be considered wrongful termination, the employer must have broken state, federal, or local employment laws when they fired the employee. The primary consideration is the employer’s or manager’s mindset and answering the question of why they fired the employee. It’s considered wrongful termination if one or more of the following applies:
- The employer discriminated against the employee based on their race, color, national origin, religion, or gender (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act)
- The employer refused to provide reasonable accommodations for the employee’s religious practices
- The employer discriminated against an employee (40 or older) based on their age (Age Discrimination in Employment Act)
- The employer discriminated against the employee based on their actual or perceived disability (Americans with Disabilities Act)
- The employer discriminated against the employee based on pregnancy or maternal health issues
- The employer discriminated against the employee based on their marital status, sexual orientation, or gender identity
- The employer terminated the employee in retaliation for filing a complaint (known as whistleblower protection)
- The employer terminated the employee for participating in an employment law complaint, investigation, or lawsuit
- The employee was terminated for asking coworkers about their salary, if the employee was attempting to uncover unequal or discriminatory pay in good faith (Equal Pay Act)
- The employee-employer relationship was dictated by a signed contract, and the employer broke the contract when they fired the employee
- The employee-employer relationship was governed by a collective bargaining agreement, and the employer broke the agreement when they fired the employee
- The employee was terminated for using or applying for qualified unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
- The employee was terminated for refusing orders that would have caused them to break the law
How to sue an employer for wrongful termination
If you suspect that you have been wrongfully terminated, here’s what you need to do:
- Document your termination
- Gather evidence to prove your case
- Speak with an attorney
- File a complaint with the appropriate government agency
- File a civil lawsuit
Document your termination
Getting fired is an extremely difficult and emotional experience, but it’s important to start building your case and gathering evidence right away. Write down your impressions as soon as you leave the termination meeting. If possible, consider emailing the supervisor who fired you to confirm the grounds on which you were terminated (try to keep the email as professional as possible). Gather copies of your pay stubs and compensation records, as well as anything that indicates you’re close to receiving additional compensation (vesting stock options, retirement benefits, pension, etc.).
Gather evidence to prove your case
Before you speak with an attorney to review your case, you’ll want to gather as much evidence as possible to prove your allegation. Request a copy of your personnel file, along with updated copies of the employee handbook and the company’s policy manuals. If you had an employment contract, get a copy of the agreement; if you’re covered under a collective bargaining agreement, you’ll want a copy of that, too. Lastly, speak with some of your former coworkers to discover if you’ve been singled out, if other employees were terminated at the same time or for similar reasons, and if they’re aware of any ulterior motives.
Speak with an attorney
In your initial consultation with your attorney, the attorney will help you to assess whether or not you have a solid case against your employer. An experienced employment law attorney will understand all of the applicable federal, state, and local laws, so they’ll understand which laws were violated when you were wrongfully terminated, and they’ll be able to advise on the best strategy going forward. You may also discuss the financial damages you could reasonably expect to receive from the prospective lawsuit. While the primary purpose of your lawsuit is to seek justice for wrongdoing, it’s wise to consider the potential damages you are entitled to versus the cost of pursuing your case.
File a complaint with the appropriate government agency
Before you file a civil suit against your employer for wrongful termination, you’ll need to file a formal complaint with the appropriate government agency. As you pursue your civil lawsuit, these agencies will launch an investigation of their own to enforce the applicable employment laws.
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency that enforces federal employment laws like the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. You can file a complaint here on their website within 180 days of the date you were terminated. An EEOC representative will schedule an interview with you in their nearest local office, and you’ll have the opportunity to present your case to them. If the agent believes your employer is guilty of discrimination or retaliation, the EEOC will launch a formal investigation. The EEOC has the ability to seek civil penalties for illegal activity, and they can pursue litigation if necessary.
If you were wrongfully terminated in retaliation for filing a workplace safety complaint or requesting a safety inspection, you can file a complaint with the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). You’ll need to file the complaint within 30 days of the alleged reprisal.
In the state of Arizona, the attorney general’s office handles complaints of discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination. You can file a complaint with the Civil Rights Division on the website. As with the EEOC and the OSHA, the Civil Rights Division can launch an investigation and seek penalties for wrongdoing.
What to expect in a wrongful termination lawsuit
Every case is different, but you can generally expect that your lawyer will gather important documents and hold depositions with key personnel. Your attorney may depose the manager who fired you, other supervisors who have stewardship over the firing manager, human resources personnel, and possibly some of your coworkers. You have the right to proceed to a trial if it’s in your best interests, but most wrongful termination lawsuits reach a settlement agreement outside of court.