While Arizona’s at-will employment laws generally allow employers to terminate workers for almost any reason (or no reason at all), there are a number of federal, state, and local employment laws that take precedence over at-will employment laws. Generally speaking, these laws protect employees against wrongful termination and provide recourse for employees who are wrongfully terminated. An employee who is wrongfully terminated can seek assistance from federal and state regulatory agencies, and he or she has the right to file a civil lawsuit against the employer for damages and restitution.
There are a number of situations that may qualify as wrongful termination. If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, you should speak with an employment law attorney as soon as possible. Employment laws usually include strict statutes of limitations on how long you have to submit a complaint, file a lawsuit, and receive compensation for damages, so it’s important to consult with an attorney about your case as soon as you are terminated.
What qualifies as wrongful termination?
Most cases of wrongful termination fit into one of the following categories:
- Sexual harassment
- Violation of an employment contract
- Violation of a collective bargaining agreement
Federal law prohibits employers from terminating employees on the basis of protected characteristics such as race, color, religion, gender, age (over 40), disability, national origin, and pregnancy. Most states have adopted similar civil rights laws that protect against discrimination in the workplace, and many local governments have passed ordinances that protect against discrimination on the basis of marital status, sexual orientation, immigration status, and gender identity.
To assess whether or not you may have been wrongfully terminated due to discrimination, ask yourself the following questions:
- Did your employer make any direct statements—verbally or in writing—that you were terminated for discriminatory reasons?
- Were you terminated soon after your employer learned about a protected characteristic, such as your ethnicity, religion, age, or disability?
- If you were terminated as part of a group, is there any circumstantial evidence that the group was targeted based on discrimination of a protected characteristic? (e.g. only women were laid off, only employees who are 60 or older, etc.)
- Are any groups of employees treated differently by your employer due to their age, race, or gender? (e.g. are Caucasian employees routinely allowed to be tardy while African American employees are targeted and terminated for tardiness?)
- Did any of your superiors (managers, supervisors, executives) make comments or take actions that indicate they had a bias against particular groups? If so, were these statements made in the presence of other witnesses, or are there other parties who can attest to these actions?
- Did any of your superiors make any comments that he or she prefers one group of employees over another? If so, are there any other witnesses to these statements? (e.g. a hiring manager tells you that he only hires recent college graduates, or a supervisor says that he prefers to work with men, may indicate a bias against protected classes)
Harassment in the workplace falls under the protection of anti-discrimination laws, but it’s worth discussing separately due to the large number of wrongful termination cases that involve sexual harassment. Just as employers are prohibited from discriminating against an employee based on protected characteristics, employers are prohibited from harassing anyone in the workplace based on these categories. Simple teasing and isolated incidents don’t necessarily qualify as harassment, but any harassment that impedes you from doing your job and crease a hostile work environment is considered harassment.
Employers are prohibited from terminating employees in retaliation for their participation in “protected activities.” Many retaliation-based wrongful termination cases involve whistleblowers who report illegal activity, but there are a variety of protected activities that apply to individuals other than whistleblowers:
- Answering questions during an employer investigation of alleged discrimination, harassment, or workplace safety
- Asking managers or coworkers about salary information to uncover potentially discriminatory wages
- Being a witness in a charge, complaint, investigation, or lawsuit concerning discrimination, sexual harassment, or workplace safety
- Communicating with a supervisor or manager about discrimination, harassment, or workplace safety
- Exercising your right to vote
- Qualified use of military leave
- Qualified use of unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
- Refusing to follow orders that would result in breaking the law
- Requesting accommodations for a disability
- Requesting accommodations for a religious belief or practice
- Resisting sexual advances, or intervening to protect others from sexual harassment
- Serving jury duty
Breach of contract
Arizona’s at-will employment laws don’t apply when there is a written employment contract. For an employment contract to be binding, one of the following conditions must apply:
- Both parties have signed the written contract
- The employer has a written contract set forth in the employment handbook or manual
- The employer has distributed a document to the employee that expresses the intent that it is a contract of employment
- A written contract is set forth in writing and signed by the party to be charged
If the employment contract includes any language that defines the length of employment, places restrictions on terminating the employment relationship, or requires any type of advance notice by the company, the employer will be held to those terms. Also, note that at-will employment law explicitly states that employees who are subject to a written employment contract or collective bargaining agreement cannot be terminated due to partial performance. Partial performance can be a factor in the termination decision, but it cannot be the deciding factor.
Breach of a collective bargaining agreement
Collective bargaining agreements are negotiated between unions and employers. When an employer signs a collective bargaining agreement, all of the employees covered by the agreement—including non-union members—are protected by the agreement. If the collective bargaining agreement includes any restrictions on terminating employment, the employer will be held to those requirements for all covered employees.
What to do if you are wrongfully terminated
When an employee is wrongfully terminated, he or she may seek restitution from the employer in the form of penalties (applied by the appropriate agency), rehiring, and recovering damages for back pay, front pay, and sometimes liquidated damages. Depending on your situation and the reasons for your termination, you can take the following actions:
- If your case involves discrimination, harassment, or discrimination-based retaliation, you can file a complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and file a civil lawsuit in federal court. You can also file a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office (CRD) and file a civil lawsuit in state court.
- If your case involves a violation of the Family Medical Leave Act, you can file a complaint with the US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD), and you can file a civil lawsuit in federal court.
- If your case involves retaliation for participation in a workplace safety investigation, you can file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and file a complaint in federal court.
- If your case involves a breach of an employment contract or collective bargaining agreement, you can file a civil lawsuit against the employer