What are Wrongful Termination Laws?

C. Mitchell

Wrongful termination laws, called unfair dismissal laws in some jurisdictions, are laws that protect employees from being fired from their jobs for unlawful reasons. These laws are facets of national employment law, and the contours of what makes a termination wrongful are different in different jursidictions. Most of the time, wrongful termination laws concern firings based on discrimination, harassment, breach of contract, or retaliation. Only terminations that specifically violate the law are considered wrongful under any scheme. Simply losing one’s job does not usually count as legally wrongful.

Wrongful termination laws are meant to protect workers from being fired without valid reasons.
Wrongful termination laws are meant to protect workers from being fired without valid reasons.

Employment laws, though they vary, usually share a common goal of protecting employees. Under most employment law schemes, employees enjoy the right to remain in their job without termination or threat of termination based on their race, their gender, their age, their national origin, or a host of other factors. Most laws prohibit companies from violating an employment contract’s written terms in firing an employee. It is also frequently impermissible under wrongful termination laws to fire an employee based on a safety report or other whistle-blowing activity the employee filed contrary to the company’s interests.

Wrongful termination laws apply to all companies within the covered jurisdiction, but they are often not enforced without a complaint. An employee usually has to be fired and then challenge the lawfulness of that firing in order to trigger a wrongful termination action. Local rules will determine how a wrongful termination action will proceed. In some places, the aggrieved employee must file a formal lawsuit against the company in a court of ordinary jurisdiction. In others, employment disputes must be brought before specific employment law hearing officers, panels, or tribunals.

The specifics of what makes a termination wrongful or unfair are typically set out very specifically in the wording of the law. While an employee might suspect that he was fired for discriminatory reasons, he must be able to prove both that that discrimination occurred, and that the discrimination was in fact the overriding cause for his termination, in order for a wrongful dismissal case to be successful. The law punishes based on documented violations, not on suspicions or feelings.

Depending on the facts of the case, winning a wrongful termination lawsuit can be challenging. Even if a company is engaging in illegal tactics for firing employees, the company is usually careful to keep its illegal motivations under wraps. Getting the evidence needed to mount a successful case can be time-consuming, challenging, and often costly.

It is often a good idea to hire an employment discrimination or wrongful termination lawyer in the early stages of a wrongful termination lawsuit. A lawyer who knows the subject matter, the ins and outs of the governing wrongful dismissal laws, and the history of similar cases will often be able help a terminated or soon-to-be-terminated employee far more than the employee could on his own. The lawyer will typically spearhead the wrongful termination investigation, and will represent the employee before both corporate and legal officials. Many communities have employment law public interest groups that will provide free or low-cost representation to wrongful termination plaintiffs in some cases.

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