Do I Have a Wrongful Termination Case?

Employees call our office all the time to complain that they have been wrongfully terminated. So when is someone “wrongfully terminated” in the eyes of the law?

You first have to understand the overriding general rule about your employment status in Massachusetts and most other states.  Unless you have a written employment contract, you are an “at will employee.”  What does that mean?  It means you can be fired for cause or for no reason at all –  at any time and without notice.  This is a difficult concept for employees to understand because it is such a harsh and definite rule. However, it is the law.

All hope is not lost as every rule usually has exceptions. There are certain statuses and circumstances where the law protects employees from being fired.  These laws are generally referred to as discrimination, sexual harassment and certain whistleblower situations.

What types of discrimination are illegal?  If you were fired due to one of the following, you may have a wrongful termination case:

  • Race 
  • Color
  • Religious Creed
  • National Origin
  • Ancestry
  • Gender (sex)
  • Age 
  • Handicap (disability)
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Whether you have a child
  • Gender Identity
  • Retaliation (for exercising a protected right)

This list is often referred to as “the protected statuses.”  Your termination has to have been related to one of these protected statuses for you to have a discrimination claim and there needs to be a good amount of evidence to prove discrimination based on mistreatment due to one of these protected statuses.

What about sexual harassment?  Employees who are sexually harassed are sometimes fired or demoted for not participating in unwanted sexual advances by a boss, supervisor or co-worker.  Terminating an employee for complaining about sexual harassment or for rejecting sexual advances is illegal and considered to be a wrongful termination.   

What is Constructive Discharge?  There circumstances at work where the discrimination or sexual harassment is so bad and pervasive that you can no longer continue to work there and don’t come back to work or quit.  The law recognizes this as a form of indirect wrongful termination because the circumstances forcing you out of your job were based on discrimination or sexual harassment.  You were directly terminated but you were run out of your job due to discrimination or sexual harassment.  

What about if I am a whistleblower?  The term whistleblower has a specific meaning in the law.  If you are fired because you complained about an illegal practice that your employer was engaged in or refused to participate in illegal conduct, you may have a wrongful termination claim.  If you work at an employer that has contracts with the state or federal government or is paid by the state or federal government, such as healthcare companies that are paid by Medicare or MassHealth or a construction company that works on a public project, you have a right under the law to “blow the whistle” on the company’s illegal conduct by following the complaint procedure set out in the whistleblower laws.  If the government finds your claim to be valid, they may take over the claim and you may be able to receive part of any monetary recovery.  If you are fired for “blowing the whistle” you would have a wrongful termination claim.

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