Wrongful Termination: What Types of Claims Are Most Successful?

If you believe you were fired illegally from your job (what’s known as “wrongful termination”), you probably want to know if you can get your former employer to pay for your financial losses and other damages. We recently surveyed readers with wrongful termination claims to find out why they were fired and how their cases turned out.

Common Reasons for Illegal Firing

Many people believe that wrongful termination means being fired for any unfair reason. That’s not exactly right. Most employment is “at will,” which means that employers can generally fire their employees for any reason (or no reason). But there are specific exceptions carved out by federal and state laws giving employees certain legal protections. A termination is wrongful only if it fits within one of these exceptions.

Illegal Discrimination or Harassment

Federal law prohibits most employers from discriminating against workers based on certain categories (known as “protected characteristics”) such as race, color, national origin, gender, pregnancy, religion, age (40 and older), genetic information, and disability. Most states also have laws barring employment discrimination, many of which protect additional characteristics, such as sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, and status as a domestic violence victim. Your employer must also protect you from harassment in the workplace based on these protected characteristics. About four out of ten readers who resolved their wrongful termination claims successfully—meaning that they received out-of-court settlements from their former employers or court awards after trial—said they were fired or forced to quit because of discrimination and/or harassment. (For more details, see our article on wrongful termination claims based on discrimination or harassment.)

Retaliation and Whistleblowing

Various federal and state laws prohibit employers from retaliating against employees exercising their legal rights by reporting or complaining about certain workplace issues, including:

  • illegal discrimination or harassment
  • violations of wage and hour laws
  • health and safety violations, and
  • on-the-job injuries (for instance, by filing a workers’ compensation claim).

Other laws protect employees who are whistleblowers—those who report illegal activity unrelated to workplace rights, such as shareholder fraud, filing false tax returns, or other financial irregularities.

Nearly three in ten readers with successful wrongful termination claims were fired in retaliation for exercising a legal right or reporting illegal activity. But it’s worth noting that there’s significant overlap between these cases and claims based on illegal discrimination or harassment: About half of the readers who were fired for exercising their legal rights told us that they had filed discrimination or harassment complaints. (Many readers gave more than one reason for their termination—which isn’t too surprising given the tangled circumstances that often lead to terminations and different interpretations of employers’ actions.)

Employer’s Breach of Contract

If your employer broke a promise by firing you, you may be able to collect damages for what’s known as “breach of contract.” Written or oral employment contracts might include limits on the employer’s right to fire the employee (for instance, within a certain time period or for certain reasons). Many states also recognize “implied contracts”—ones that are suggested by the employer’s actions or statements (such as disciplinary policies that give employees the right to certain procedures before being fired).

Just over two in ten readers who received settlements or awards based their wrongful termination claims on the employer’s breach of contract. This low number might be a result of how hard it is to prove your employer broke a promise if you don’t have a written contract that limits the reasons you can be fired. Also, damages in breach of contract cases are more limited than other types of wrongful termination cases.

Ignoring Protected Leave

Different federal and state laws protect eligible employees from being fired while they are on certain types of family and medical leave. Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employers with 50 or more employees may not fire eligible employees for taking up to 12 weeks of leave each year for certain reasons, including their own or an immediate family member’s serious health condition, or bonding with a new child. (For details, see our article on taking family and medical leave.) The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), another federal law, makes it illegal to fire an employee due to a disability or the need for a disability-related leave.

Many states have their own family and medical leave laws or other laws giving the right to protected time off for pregnancy, parenting, or illness. Most states also prohibit employers from firing employees for taking time off to vote or serve on jury duty.

Despite these protections, some employers fire or lay off employees when they ask for protected leave, during their leave, or when they try to come back to work. Only 7% of readers with successful wrongful termination claims were fired for this reason.

Not Providing Required Accommodations

The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation for an employee’s disability (in addition to allowing disability-related time off), as long as it doesn’t create too much of a hardship for the company. Federal anti-discrimination laws also require employers to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and practices (again, unless it would be an undue hardship). These laws protect employees who are fired for requesting accommodation or are forced to quit because the employer refused to provide adequate accommodation after they request it. Fewer than one in ten (7%) of readers with successful wrongful termination claims were fired or forced to leave their jobs because the employer didn’t provide accommodations.

Outcomes of Claims Based on Reasons for Firing

Overall, less than half of our readers (43%) received a settlement or award in their wrongful termination case. Some factors significantly increased the likelihood of a successful outcome—especially having a lawyer and filing a lawsuit—but our survey showed that, in general, the reason for the firing didn’t make much of a difference. But there was one exception to this pattern. Of the readers who said they were fired for requesting or taking legally allowed time off, less than a quarter (23%) resolved their cases successfully.

Part of the explanation for this result may be a misunderstanding about what types of leave are required by law, as well as the requirements for protection under the FMLA (including eligibility and giving advance notice). About three-quarters of those with successful leave-based claims had taken or requested time off under the FMLA. But when we looked at the 77% of readers with unsuccessful claims, more than half told us they were fired for taking personal leave or too much sick leave (which doesn’t come under the protections of the FMLA if it’s for minor or temporary illness but might be protected under some state laws).

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