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Most employment in the United States is at will — the employer can fire the employee at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all, unless the reason for the termination is illegal. Termination for illegal reasons is called wrongful termination.
Employees can be sheltered from at will termination in a variety of ways including written promises or contracts. Sometimes employees are protected by an implied promise based on things the employer said and did. For example, promises might have been made in the hiring process of long-term employment. Determining factors for an implied promise can include violation of dismissal procedures laid out in employee manuals. A court’s decision about implied promises is influenced by these factors:
If the employer acted unfairly, a determination of wrongful termination can be reached based on a breach of good faith and fair dealing. Examples include:
Violating certain laws are sound grounds for wrongful termination suits. These include firing an employee who takes time off to do jury service, vote, or serve in the military or National Guard. The law also protects whistleblowers from being fired and employees who file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Different states have additional laws.
Firing an employee because of their race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age, disability, or genetic information is illegal.
If fraud can be proved in the following ways, then the employer is guilty of wrongful termination:
Employers are liable if it can be proved that they:
Wrongful termination settlements are typically between $300,000 and $500,000 but can go into the six figures. The settlement covers lost wages but only covers attorney's fees and punitive damages under certain circumstances.
One well-known wrongful termination suits involved Sandy Baratta, former Oracle Vice President for Global Alliance. After convincing a jury that she was terminated because of her pregnancy and whistle-blowing, a judge ordered Oracle to pay her $300,000 in lost wages, $2 million of canceled stock options which formed part of her compensation package, plus $200,000 in damages for emotional distress.
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