In the state of Arizona, most private-sector employees are considered “at-will” employees. Under ARS 23-1501, an at-will employment relationship that isn’t subject to a written contract or collective bargaining agreement may be voluntarily severed by the employer or the employee at any time, for any reason. While this leaves the door open for employers to fire or lay off employees for just about any reason (including having no reason at all), there are a number of federal, state, and local employment laws that protect against wrongful termination. Generally speaking, most wrongful termination cases fall into one of the following categories:

  • Discrimination
  • Retaliation
  • Violation of a written agreement

Discrimination

Federal laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibit employers from terminating employees on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, pregnancy, disability, and age (over 40). Many states and local governments have adopted additional anti-discrimination laws that provide additional protection for protected characteristics such as an employee’s marital status, immigration status, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Employers who wrongfully terminate employees in violation of these anti-discrimination laws may be subject to investigation, fines, restitution, and civil action.

Following are some examples of wrongful termination based on discrimination:

  • An employee who is age 40 or older is terminated to make room for a younger employee
  • A manager files a female employee because he isn’t comfortable working with females (or vice versa)
  • An African American employee is fired for showing up late to work but his Caucasian coworkers are not even disciplined for showing up late
  • The employer’s stated reason for terminating the employee are proven false, and there is circumstantial evidence that the firing manager was biased against the terminated employee based on a protected characteristic (e.g. the terminated employee is from a foreign country).
  • The company failed to follow its own policies concerning investigations into alleged misconduct before terminating the employee, and there is circumstantial evidence that discrimination played a role in jumping to conclusions without a proper investigation
  • An employer terminates a disabled employee for requesting a reasonable accommodation for his or her disability
  • An employer refuses to grant a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s deeply-held religious beliefs and practices (e.g. refusing to allow the employee short breaks to pray, then terminating the employee for taking breaks to pray)
  • A human resources supervisor notifies a manager that one of his employees has applied for qualified unpaid leave through FMLA, and the manager subsequently terminates the employee

If you have been terminated based on discrimination against a protected characteristic, you can file a complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Civil Rights Division of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office (ACRD). You also have the right to file a civil lawsuit against the employer to recover damages.

Retaliation

Employers are prohibited from taking any negative actions against an employee in retaliation for his or her participation in protected activities. Retaliation cases are often referred to as “whistleblower” cases, but not all retaliation cases involve employees who “blow the whistle” by filing a complaint or participating in an investigation. Following are some common examples of wrongful termination cases that involve employer retaliation:

  • An employee is terminated for answering questions during an employer investigation of alleged discrimination, harassment, or workplace safety
  • An employee is terminated for asking coworkers and managers about their compensation, providing the employee had reasonable suspicion of unequal pay and was acting in good faith to uncover unequal pay practices
  • An employee is terminated for serving as a witness in an external investigation, complaint, or lawsuit alleging discrimination, sexual harassment, or workplace safety
  • An employee is terminated for communicating with a manager or supervisor about discrimination, harassment, or workplace safety
  • An employee is terminated for exercising his or her right to vote
  • An employee is terminated for taking qualified military leave
  • An employee is terminated for requesting or using unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act
  • An employee is terminated for refusing to follow instructions that would result in breaking the law
  • An employee is terminated in retaliation for requesting reasonable accommodations for his or her disability or religious beliefs
  • An employee is terminated for resisting sexual advances, or intervening to protect others from sexual harassment
  • An employee is terminated for serving jury duty

If you have been terminated in retaliation for your participation in a protected activity, you’ll need to file a complaint with the appropriate regulatory agency:

  • For federal discrimination and harassment-related cases, file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
  • For state discrimination and harassment-related cases, file a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office
  • For federal workplace safety-related cases, file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration
  • For state workplace safety-related cases, file a complaint with the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Industrial Commission of Arizona
  • For cases regarding the use of FMLA, file a complaint with the US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD)

After you have filed a complaint with the appropriate agency, you may file a civil lawsuit against your employer. The damages awarded in a successful wrongful termination case often include back pay, front pay, and liquidated damages.

Violation of a written agreement

Wrongful termination cases that involve a breach of contract are perhaps the easiest to prove and win. Where charges of discrimination and retaliation often rely on circumstantial evidence, cases where an employer clearly violates a written agreement are fairly straightforward. Following are some common examples of wrongful termination cases that involve a breach of contract:

  • The employee is covered by a collective bargaining agreement
  • The employee and employer have both signed an employment agreement
  • The employer has established a written agreement in the form of company policy codified in the employee manual or handbook
  • The employer issued a document to the employee that expressed the intent that the document was a contract of employment
  • The employer produced and signed a written contract (the employee doesn’t need to sign if the company doesn’t ask for or require his or her signature)

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.

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