FAQs on Wrongful Termination

Wrongful termination refers to the involuntary termination of an employee in violation of the law or an employment contract. For example, federal and some state laws enumerate specific characteristics against which employers must not discriminate. Employment contracts often spell out reasons that an employee may and may not be fired.

How can I tell if I have a claim for wrongful termination?

While almost any employee can be fired for poor performance, federal and some state laws protect employees from termination due to specific reasons unrelated to job performance. Those reasons include:

  • Discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, color, age or religion
  • Harassment, including sexual harassment
  • Discrimination based on a disability that could have been reasonably accommodated by the employer
  • Retaliation for filing a claim of harassment or discrimination
  • Retaliation for filing a whistleblower action
  • Retaliation for supporting a protected person who filed a claim
  • Retaliation for taking leave allowed by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
  • Violations of labor laws

Some of these violations carry statutory penalties, while others can result in monetary damages based on the employee’s back pay and other elements. Some may merit punitive damages or offer the potential to pursue more than one wrongdoer. An experienced attorney can review your circumstances to determine a suitable approach.

Violation of employment contract

An employee who has a written or oral contract with an employer may have a legal cause of action if the employer fires the employee for a reason not allowed by the contract. Similarly, the employee handbook may lay out certain rules for termination. If you have been fired in violation of your contract, it is a good idea to contact a lawyer and explore your options.

What can I be fired for?

If you are an at-will employee, you can be fired for any reason as long as it is not illegal. You can be fired for misconduct such as excessive absences or tardiness or simply because your employer does not like your personality. If you have an employment contract, however, your contract may limit the reasons for which you can be fired.

Employment at will means that you can quit or your employer can fire you at any time with or without notice. Your employer can have any reason for the termination or no reason at all, as long as your employer does not have an illegal reason for firing you, such as racial discrimination.

Can I be fired even if I am performing well?

The answer to this question varies by state. This type of promise may be enforceable if there is clear evidence that an oral contract was made. If there is sufficient evidence that the employer made statements about job security to the employee, including the reasons for which the employee could not be fired, then the employee has a better chance of enforcing his or her rights.

Is my employer required to give me a severance package if I am terminated?

No federal law requires employers to offer severance packages. Your employment contract or employee handbook, however, may provide for one. Speak with an attorney for advice on how to negotiate and secure a severance package.

A severance agreement is a contract between a departing employee and an employer. The severance payment is a reward for service and part of an exchange of duties between the employee and employer. In the agreement, the employee typically agrees not to sue the employer for wrongful termination or any other employment issue. Because the employee must receive something valuable in return for the release of liability to be valid, the employer agrees to pay the employee additional compensation. This is often called the severance package.

Can I obtain unemployment insurance?

Employers pay unemployment insurance payroll taxes for each employee. If an employee becomes unemployed through no fault of his or her own, the employee is usually eligible for unemployment compensation. The employee must apply for these benefits through a state agency. Sometimes the process is straightforward; other times it is more complex because the employee was fired or voluntarily gave up the job or because the employer has challenged the claim. If you have concerns about unemployment insurance, contact Employment Law Office of John H. Haskin & Associates, LLC in Indianapolis, IN, to discuss the matter with an experienced employment law attorney.

If the employee quits

The unemployment insurance system is designed to protect people who have become involuntarily unemployed. It is not intended to help those who can work but don’t like their jobs. When an employee quits a job, therefore, it may be difficult to obtain unemployment benefits.

The specific laws vary by state, but general principles apply. If the employee had good cause for leaving the job, then he or she may be eligible for benefits. “Good cause” is an objective standard: the employee must have had substantial, real and significant motives for leaving. The cause must be compelling enough to show that no reasonable person would have stayed in the same circumstances.

Compelling reasons to leave a job may include:

  • Harassment
  • Discrimination
  • Substantial reduction in work hours or pay
  • Unsafe or hazardous working conditions
  • Legitimate family emergency
  • If the employee is laid off

Leaving a job because of being laid off is not leaving voluntarily. A laid-off employee, therefore, will typically be eligible for unemployment benefits.

If the employee is fired

An employee who has been terminated or wrongfully discharged is eligible for unemployment benefits in some situations. If the employee was terminated for serious misconduct, he or she is unlikely to qualify for benefits. If the employee was terminated because the company was experiencing financial difficulty and had to reduce the size of its workforce, however, then the employee is likely to be entitled to unemployment compensation.

Some infractions that are sufficient to justify termination are not sufficient to support denial of unemployment benefits. If the misconduct was unintentional or rarely occurred, therefore, the worker may qualify for benefits.

Making the unemployment compensation claim

The former employee who wishes to collect unemployment insurance must apply through the state agency that administers the benefits. If the application is denied, the employee can appeal the decision. Both the employee and the employer will have a chance to present evidence.

The exact procedures vary by state, and this is one reason it is so important to work with an attorney who knows the laws of the jurisdiction.

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The Employment Law Office of John H. Haskin & Associates, LLC, is located in Indianapolis and serves clients throughout Indiana. For more than three decades, we have successfully represented employees in legal disputes with their employers. Our attorneys only represent employees, never employers.