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What Is Wrongful Termination?

One of the most common calls I get is from someone who believes they were “wrongfully” terminated from their job. As the conversation develops I often learn that the caller is upset because he or she feels that the termination was “unfair” or was based on something that was not their fault or responsibility.

I often learn that the caller has no reason to believe he or she was the victim of what the law would recognize as unlawful discrimination or retaliation….just that he or she did not “deserve” to be fired. Sometimes I see issues that the caller has not seen and there is in fact reason to believe there may be a legitimate claim. Other times I then have the unpleasant task of explaining the law of at-will employment.

Most private sector employees are “at-will” employees. In other words, they are employees who can leave their job, or be fired from their job for any legal reason or even for no reason at all. The relationship between employer and employee is a voluntary relationship that either side can end at any time (subject to certain legal provisions).

Despite the rule of at-will employment, there are many exceptions to at-will employment; exceptions that give a fired employee grounds for recovering monetary damages from the former employer. Each of those exceptions has some specific legal origin.

So when a lawyer uses the term “wrongful termination,” what does that mean? Well, most lawyers use the term as a sort of umbrella term to cover all of the specific forms of unlawful termination that someone might encounter. It is a bit like the term “personal injury” when used by attorneys who handle auto accident cases. When a person is terminated from their job for a reason that is specifically prohibited by law, then that is what lawyers and the legal system would consider to be a wrongful termination. Such illegal reasons often include one or more of the following:

• Termination cannot be based upon on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, pregnancy, or age. Federal laws prohibit such actions for private employers with 15 employees or more (or 20 employees or more for age-related discrimination laws) and Colorado law prohibits these actions for all employers, even those with fewer than 15 employees. Colorado law also prohibits discrimination on the basis sexual orientation, legal off-work activities and other grounds.

• Termination cannot be based upon a physical or mental disability that does not unreasonably interfere in the employee’s job performance and an employer cannot unreasonably refuse to accommodate an employee's disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act imposes these restrictions on employers with 15 or more employees and Colorado law governs employers regardless of the number of employees.

• Termination is often unlawful when due to retaliation for a legitimate employee action, such as filing an anti-discrimination charge or participating as a witness in such cases, making a workman’s compensation claim, taking protected medical or family leave, refusal to engage in criminal activity or reporting illegal activity to proper authorities or where an employee has recently exposed illegal activity within the company. Additionally, under Colorado law, an employer cannot terminate an employee because of off-duty activities engaged in by the employee that are legal and not detrimental to the employer’s business.

• In some cases, employers may provide employees with employment contracts or agreements that specify the conditions for which the employee can be terminated and in some cases there are implicit contracts, such as employee manuals, that set out the terms under which an employee can be terminated. If such an agreement is not honored by the employer, it may be wrongful termination.

Beyond what I have just described, there are numerous federal, state and even local laws dealing with discrimination, retaliation, pregnancy, work hours, union employees, public sector employees, layoffs and many other circumstances.

The above is intended as a brief summary of the concept of wrongful termination and is not intended as legal advice. If you need advice or help with your particular situation, you need to get advice specifically tailored to your situation. You must also be aware that there are time limits for the filing of all legal claims including employment law claims. If you miss such a filing deadline, your claim may fail regardless of its merits.

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