Remedies for wrongful termination vary from one jurisdiction to the next. If you have been wrongfully discharged, available remedies may include reinstatement in your job; back pay for lost wages; front pay for future lost wages; litigation costs and attorney fees; or other compensatory damages.
As with all legal claims, deadlines are crucial. Statutes of limitations for filing wrongful termination claims are governed by state law. As a result, filing deadlines may vary greatly based on the jurisdiction in which you reside.
How do wrongful discharge laws protect employees?
It depends on the state, but the concept of “wrongful discharge” or “wrongful termination” seldom is enshrined in a law that has been passed by legislators. Rather it is a common-law concept that is policed by a state’s courts. As a practical matter, however, the common law’s protection can be just as strong as a statute. For instance, some jurisdictions allow employees to sue their former employer for wrongful discharge if they’ve been fired for:
- Exercising a statutory right;
- Reporting illegal conduct; or
- Refusing to engage in illegal conduct.
This is the case in the District of Columbia, and it applies even when employees are hired “at-will.” Here are some examples of employee actions that D.C. courts have said cannot be used as a reason for firing:
- Refusing to drive a truck without a required inspection sticker;
- Testifying before City Council about patient safety issues;
- Filing, or threatening to file, a complaint about minimum-wage violations;
- Threatening to inform the Food & Drug Administration about unsafe drug storage; and
- Reporting a co-worker’s health code violation.
I was fired unfairly. Do I have a claim for wrongful discharge?
It depends on the details of your individual story, and on the rules that courts have applied in your state. In Maryland, for instance, employees have a cause of action if their termination violates a clear mandate of public policy. What does that mean? Generally, you will need to point at a law or regulation that would be undermined if your firing were allowed. Here are some real-life examples of conduct that Maryland courts have said can’t be a basis for firing:
- Filing a worker’s compensation claim;
- Refusing to violate someone’s right to privacy;
- Filing assault and battery charges against a manager;
- Taking time off to serve on a jury;
- Insisting on an employer’s compliance with the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act; and
- Reporting a co-worker’s suspected criminal activities to law enforcement authorities.
What’s the law on wrongful discharge in Virginia?
It’s a bit different from D.C. and Maryland: In Virginia, an employee must identify a Virginia state law (not a federal law or a regulation) that establishes a specific public policy that was violated by the employee’s firing. Some state laws explicitly state the policy behind them; such laws can support a wrongful-discharge claim. Similarly, a statute will pass muster if it’s designed to protect personal property, personal rights, health, safety, or welfare. Employees also must show that that they’re part of the group that the law intended to protect.
I was fired unfairly, but it was 18 months ago. Can I still sue?
It depends. In D.C. and Maryland, you can allege wrongful termination up to three years from the date of your firing. In Virginia, however, you have only one year to file a claim. The rules in other states vary.
Remember that you may have statutory claims, too: It depends on your profession, on the details of your firing, and possibly on your jurisdiction. If your wrongful termination violated a specific law, your deadline for filing a claim may be different.
I was an at-will employee when I was fired. My boss says that means I can’t sue for wrongful termination. Is he right?
It’s true that at-will employees generally can be fired for any reason, without recourse. But that means any legal reason. As we’ve discussed above, there are plenty of illegal reasons for firing someone — and you can sue if any of those reasons apply. At-will employment is not a license to discriminate, or to fire employees who refuse to do something unlawful.