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The Difference Between Wrongful Termination and Simply Unfair Firing

"WRONGFUL TERMINATION" paperwork on a desk with a pen and judge gavel.

Depending on the circumstances, your firing or layoff could be legally actionable.

If you’ve been fired or laid off, it’s only natural to believe it was unfair — and there is a good chance you’re right. The phrase “wrongful termination” may feel like it applies to your situation. However, wrongful termination in a legal sense is a specific act with a specific definition.

Like most U.S. states, West Virginia is an at-will employment state. That means, unless you have a contract (which most employees don’t), your employer can fire you for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. Some reasons for firing that may seem unfair but are usually legal include:

  • You had a personality conflict with your boss.
  • You were falsely accused of violating a policy and your boss acted on that accusation.
  • You wouldn’t follow a needlessly restrictive company policy.

However, your employer cannot fire you for an illegal reason. Broadly speaking, there are two categories of illegal reasons to fire someone: discrimination and retaliation.

What is illegal discrimination?

Discrimination, in the context of employment law, is taking an adverse employment action (such as firing) on the basis of a protected characteristic of the employee. Under various federal and state anti-discrimination laws, the legally protected categories include:

  • Sex, gender, or gender identity
  • Sexual orientation
  • Pregnancy
  • Race, color, or national origin
  • Religion
  • Age (if over 40)
  • Disability
  • Genetic information or family medical history
  • Military status
  • HIV/AIDS status

In order to have a wrongful termination case based on discrimination, you have to prove that you were fired or laid off on the basis of your protected characteristic.

Of course, this is not always straightforward. Employers rarely come out and say that they fired someone because of their race, gender, or religion. Often, they will use language such as “not a good fit for the culture,” which is often a euphemism for bigotry.

Or you may have been fired for violating a policy that was selectively enforced; for example, if you were fired because of “tardiness,” but they only enforced the tardiness policy with regard to employees of a certain race, then you may have a discrimination case.

What is illegal retaliation?

In the context of wrongful termination, retaliation is firing you because you engaged in a legally protected activity. Some examples of protected activities include:

  • Talking about your salary or benefits with coworkers (if you are not a manager).
  • Reporting illegal harassment or discrimination in good faith (meaning you believed the complaint to be true).
  • Filing a workplace safety report with OSHA in good faith.
  • Filing a workers’ compensation claim after a work injury.
  • Discussing or distributing materials about unionization, or participating in union elections or activities.
  • Taking leave to serve in the military or the National Guard.
  • Taking leave to serve on a jury.
  • Requesting or taking medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
  • Requesting a disability accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Cooperating with an EEOC investigation.

You also cannot be fired in retaliation for refusing to break the law at work.

Again, engaging in one of those activities doesn’t mean your employer can’t fire you; it means they can’t fire you on that basis. If you engaged in a protected activity and were then fired, your employer will likely give a different, legal reason for the firing.

Your employment attorney’s job is to argue that this reason was pretextual and the real reason was the protected activity. For example, if your employer says you were fired for violating some obscure policy, and your attorney can show that they had never enforced that policy until after you filed a sexual harassment report, you may have a wrongful termination case.

An experienced wrongful termination lawyer can help.

In an at-will employment state, winning wrongful termination cases is often difficult — but the right attorney can make all the difference. Klie Law Offices has a proven track record in high-stakes wrongful termination matters.

We will listen to your story, explain whether you have a claim, and if you choose to move forward, launch an immediate investigation to build a strong case for the compensation and justice you deserve.

If you believe you’ve been fired for an illegal reason, talk to an experienced wrongful termination attorney about your rights. Contact us today for a free case evaluation.

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