Wrongful termination can happen to anyone, even senior citizens who have worked for the same company for many years. Being wrongfully terminated from your work can be devastating and can deeply affect your finances in the present and in the future. Under at-will employment laws, an individual can be fired at any time and for any reason, which makes proving wrongful termination difficult.
However, there are exceptions to at will employment laws that can help individuals determine if they were wrongfully terminated and later prove that they did not deserve to be fired. To learn what qualifies as wrongful termination, what legal termination is and how to take action if you have been wrongfully terminated, continue reading the sections below.
What qualifies as a wrongful termination?
Wrongful termination can come in many forms. By law, you cannot be terminated based on the following factors:
- Discrimination – Discrimination constitutes being wrongfully terminated due to physical, cultural or religious prejudice on the part of the employer that have nothing to do with an employee’s work performance, such as being fired for religious beliefs or race.
- Harassment – If you are fired for reporting harassment or forced to leave your work after experiencing harassment, this constitutes wrongful termination based on harassment issues and retaliation from the employer.
- Retaliation – Retaliation is a form of wrongful dismissal that usually involves your previous employer taking illegal actions against you to protect the company or themselves from legal repercussions. If you have been wrongfully terminated after reporting your company for breaking the law, endangering employees or sexual harassment, this may qualify as retaliation.
- Breach of Contract – Breach of contract is another form of wrongful termination which you may have experienced. If any part of your employee contract was violated in the process of your dismissal, you are entitled to legal action against your employer. For example, it would be considered wrongful termination if your employer promises you job security in a written or verbal agreement and then fires you.
Some instances of wrongful dismissal are more complicated than the aforementioned reasons but may still be considered a form of wrongful termination. To explore wrongful termination laws and practices more fully, you can read our guide for additional information.
What qualifies as a legal termination?
It is important to be able to discern between types of legal termination and wrongful termination. Because at-will employment is the most common form of employment in the United States, it can often be difficult to identify the reason for which you were fired. The following are common types of legal termination of employment that do not qualify as forms of wrongful termination:
- Dissatisfactory Work Performance – One legal form of termination is dismissing an employee due to unsatisfactory work performance. Employers typically set goals or have specific guidelines on how much work an employee needs to complete and what level of productivity they need to demonstrate. It is considered a legal termination if an employee does not meet the employment stipulations and falls short of meeting mandatory requirements set by the employer.
- Misconduct – Another type of legal termination is firing based on employee misconduct. If an employee is found guilty of harassment of any sort, including sexual harassment, discriminatory comments, threats or disruptive behavior, he or she can be dismissed immediately. These forms of misconduct are all legal reasons to fire an employee, and can be used as valid grounds to terminate an employee without facing any legal repercussions.
- Insubordination – The final type of legal employment termination is insubordination. Insubordination refers to an employee’s blatant refusal to follow an employer’s orders. For example, if an employee is told to stop performing a certain action or to do his or her work a certain way, and he or she does not comply with an employer’s wishes it is considered insubordination. Insubordination is considered a legal reason for employment dismissal unless an employee disobeys an order because he or she believes it is wrong or illegal.
Can a senior be wrongfully terminated?
Wrongful termination can be experienced by senior citizens in many ways. As mentioned before, age is considered a discriminatory factor that can qualify as wrongful termination. If you believe your employer has wrongfully fired you due to your age and not because of your performance at work, you can attempt to take legal action against them. Firing a person based on age is against employment discrimination laws, but it may be difficult to obtain proof of age discrimination because of at-will employment laws. However, if you are able to prove that you were wrongfully discriminated against because of your age, you would have legal grounds to file a suit against your employer.
Senior citizens may also experience wrongful termination if a company fires them to avoid paying their pensions or if they want to avoid paying out unused vacation time. If a senior citizen has worked at a company for many years, they are entitled to certain benefits after they leave the company or retire. However, most of these benefits do not need to be given if the employee is fired before he or she can leave or retire voluntarily. This is grounds for filing a wrongful termination suit because it is considered a form of retaliation or breach of contract.
What is employment at will?
Identifying and proving wrongful termination can often be difficult because most forms of employment in the United States are at will. At-will employment is a contractual obligation between an employee and employer that allows an employer to dismiss an employee at any time for any reason and without having to provide a just cause. This can make proving wrongful termination complicated because an employer does not need to provide a reason for terminating an employee. However, there are at will employment exceptions that should be considered when attempting to prove if you were wrongfully dismissed. Exceptions to at will employment, include:
- Termination due to discrimination.
- Termination due to retaliation.
- Termination that breaches employee contract.
Although an employer does not need to justify why they fired an employee because of at-will employment laws, they can still be considered guilty of the aforementioned forms of wrongful termination. If employees believe they have been wrongfully terminated even while under at-will employment, they can file a wrongful discrimination charge against their past employer or other charges depending on the circumstance of the termination. To learn more about filing a charge for discrimination, retaliation or breach of contract, explore our comprehensive guide on wrongful termination.
What qualifies as discrimination?
Discrimination in relation to wrongful termination is described as the loss of work due solely to discriminatory factors that are unrelated to work performance. Wrongful termination due to discrimination can be based on the following factors:
- National Origin
Some states have also added discrimination based on sexual orientation into their wrongful termination laws, but not all. An example of wrongful dismissal due to discrimination in the workplace would be if you were fired because you are a senior and the company dismisses you for being too old even if there is nothing wrong with your work performance. Pregnant women who are fired before or after taking permitted maternity leave can also be an example of termination due to discrimination. If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated based on discriminatory factors, you are entitled to file a charge of discrimination against your employer. To support your claim, you must be able to provide substantial proof of discrimination through eye-witness counts or other forms of evidence.
What qualifies as harassment?
Harassment in the workplace in relation to wrongful termination can take on many forms. The following examples demonstrate common forms of harassment found in the workplace:
- Sexual Harassment
- Offensive or abusive language
- Verbal and physical threats
Harassment can be something as simple as teasing an elderly employee about his or her age or as serious as making inappropriate advances on a coworker. You can be legally terminated from your job without notice if you are found guilty of any of the above behaviors. However, if you report this behavior and are later dismissed because of it, you may have grounds to file a wrongful termination claim against your employer. Wrongful termination cases involving an employee who was fired for reporting an executive for harassment are common and should be addressed as soon as possible, as should any case of harassment in the workplace.
What is a breach of contract?
As an exception to at will employment, a breach of contract is enough grounds to file a wrongful dismissal claim against your employer. The following violations constitute a breach of contract:
- Violating a written contract – Breaking a written contract is one of the many exceptions to at will employment agreements that employees can take advantage of. If your employer promised you a certain amount of wages, or a certain position, and did not deliver these things before terminating you, you are entitled to legal action. You are considered wrongfully terminated if any part of your written contract is violated upon your dismissal.
- Violating a verbal agreement – If you and your employer have entered into a verbal agreement upon employment and they violate any of their promises, it is considered a breach of contract. Contrary to popular belief, violating a verbal agreement is an exception to at will employment and you can easily take the matter to court if you wish. Although verbal agreements are harder to prosecute than written contracts, you still have grounds for legal action.
- Violating job security agreement – Finally, you can file a claim for wrongful termination if you were promised job security at any time during your employment. The promise could have been written or verbal and could have been given before or after you were hired. At will employment does not defend against an employer in this case because they violated one of the stipulations they set for your employment.
What is retaliation?
The wrongful termination retaliation category states that your employer cannot dismiss you in retaliation for any legal action you take against them. Employers cannot retaliate against your actions if you:
- Report illegal activity within the company.
- Report harassment in the workplace.
- Report the company for having an unsafe work environment.
- Request permitted medical leave for an extended period of time.
- Request a salary increase or change.
If you are wrongfully terminated for reporting illegal activity of any sort, such as fraud, embezzlement, or wage withholding, you are legally permitted to file a suit against your employer under the Whistleblower Protection Policy. All employees who report illegal or dishonest activity within the company in which they work are legally protected from repercussions and their identity is usually kept confidential. One of the few cases in which it is difficult to protect an employee’s identity, is when he or she is reports harassment in the workplace. Being wrongfully dismissed for reporting harassment is protected under the whistleblower policy, but your anonymity cannot be guaranteed. To deal with harassment claims, human resource departments often need to speak with both parties and that requires revealing the identity of the person who reported the incident. Similarly, being wrongfully terminated for reporting an unsafe work environment cannot remain anonymous while filing the complaint. However, if you are dismissed from work because of employer retaliation, you have more than enough legal allowance to file a wrongful dismissal claim against your employer.
Can I file a suit against my employer for wrongful termination?
You can file a wrongful termination suit against your employer as long as you meet at least one of the aforementioned criteria. If you are a senior citizen who feels as if you were terminated solely because of your age, medial history or another reason that is not protected under at-will employment laws, you are within your rights to legally retaliate against your employer. You can research how to file a charge of employment discrimination, retaliation or breach of contract, whichever claim suits your specific circumstances. Once you are fully prepared to file your wrongful termination claim and have gathered evidence to support your claim, you can take your case to a wrongful termination lawyer for professional legal assistance.
Do I need a wrongful termination lawyer to file a suit?
Before you file for wrongful termination, you must allow the employment commission in your state to investigate your claim and approve your lawsuit. Wrongful termination lawyers are specially trained to file wrongful termination claims and are experienced enough to build a case strong enough for the commission to approve. For the highest chance of success, you should entrust your claim to a trained legal professional.
A wrongful termination lawyer is not necessary to file a claim, but it is highly recommended to consider hiring one to help with your case. Attorneys who work wrongful termination cases are legal professionals that are experienced in dealing with all types of wrongful termination claims. You can even search for a wrongful termination lawyer that specializes in the type of wrongful termination suit you are trying to file. There are lawyers who specialize in discrimination claims as well as professionals that specialize in retaliation claims. You can choose the lawyer who best suits your claim needs to ensure that your suit will be filed properly and accurately by someone who knows exactly what they are doing.
Can I receive retirement benefits if I was wrongfully terminated?
Even if you are wrongfully terminated, you can still receive your Social Security retirement benefits. However, depending on the reason for your wrongful termination, you may or may not be eligible for additional unemployment benefits. You will not be restricted from receiving your retirement benefits because they are dependent on:
- The Social Security credits accumulated in your policy.
- The amount of time you have worked and paid Social Security taxes.
- The age at which you apply for benefits.
If you are wrongfully terminated as a senior citizen, you have more than likely already accumulated enough credits on your policy to receive a decent allotment. However, you will be unable to access your benefits until you are at least 61 years of age. If you are wrongfully terminated before turning 61 years of age, you may need to search for new employment to help sustain yourself and your family until you reach early or full retirement age. You can also rely on pension payments or unemployment benefits if you are unable to obtain new work before then. Although wrongful termination does not affect whether or not you are able to receive Social Security retirement benefits, it can change the amount of your benefit allotment.
Will my benefits be affected if I am wrongfully terminated before full retirement age?
Being wrongfully terminated before reaching full retirement age can affect your retirement benefits in a few way. The most prominent effects of wrongful termination are as follows:
- Being unable to accumulate full Social Security credits
- Being unable to take advantage of receiving retirement benefits late
- Being forced to receive retirement benefits early
Being wrongfully terminated before you have the chance to retire can force you to change your retirement plans quickly. Wrongful termination can affect senior citizens most if it happens before full retirement age because it may force them to start receiving their retirement benefits early, which can reduce their monthly allotment over time. You may have planned to continue working after reaching full retirement age in order to increase your monthly allotment in the long run, but being terminated before you reach that point can make that plan impossible to achieve.
Being wrongfully dismissed before reaching full retirement age can also affect the amount of Social Security credits you accumulate over time. These credits determine the longevity of your Social Security policy and may reduce the full amount of benefits that you can accumulate during your career. Because wrongful termination can interfere with your retirement plans and your benefits, it is important to take action against an employer who wrongfully terminates you as soon as possible.
How much can I receive in a wrongful termination suit?
Wrongful termination claims are often valued on several different levels. Depending on how deeply the wrongful dismissal affected a claimant, the settlement amount will vary. The different value levels include:
- Compensation for wage loss – If your wrongful termination claim wins, your settlement can reflect the amount of wages you lost when your employment was terminated. Depending on your specific case, you can receive payment for the time you spent wrongfully unemployed, or receive payment for the remaining amount of time you were supposed to be employed as was outlined in your employment contract. Overall, your wage loss settlement will depend on the salary you received while employed.
- Compensation for benefit loss – Being wrongfully dismissed before you reach full retirement age can reduce your total benefit allotment amount, which may be grounds for benefit compensation. In addition, the benefit loss portion of your settlement can also include reimbursement for the benefits you lost when you were fired, such as healthcare benefits and stock options.
- Compensation for emotional distress – Wrongful termination settlements also include compensation for emotional distress. Individuals often fall into depression or experience some form of anxiety or mental distress when they suddenly become unemployed. Victims of harassment and discrimination who have been wrongfully terminated are especially subject to emotional distress and their allotment is calculated accordingly. As this final value level cannot be quantified, the settlement value for emotional distress varies greatly.
If you win your wrongful termination claim and can show proof that qualifies you for each of the above value levels, your settlement is estimated to be somewhere between $300,000 and $500,000. Keep in mind that your settlement amount can be lower or higher than the average depending on the specific circumstances surrounding your case.
How long do wrongful termination suits last?
It takes 180 days at most for your wrongful termination claim to be investigated by your state employment commission. After you are able to take your case in court, it usually takes up to 12 months to complete the claim process. Depending on the nature of your wrongful termination claim, this process can be shorter or longer. You can ask your wrongful termination lawyer for a better estimate upon filing a claim, but the claims process is very rarely less than 12 months.