Understanding what does – and does not – constitute wrongful termination is a key to know whether you have a legal case against your company.
If you were fired because:
- you are pregnant
- of your color
- of your gender
- of your religion
- you opposed illegal practices in the workplace
- you have a disability
- because you complained about working conditions
- or for any number of other reasons that are illegal under federal or state law you may well have a legal case against your company. But judges generally will not call this “wrongful termination.”
Instead, a judge will talk about your termination in a more specific way. Taking the examples above, the judge will say you were fired in violation of:
- The Pregnancy Discrimination Act
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the basis of race
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the basis of sex
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the basis of religion
- The False Claims Act (or any of the over 100 other whistleblower statutes)
- The Americans With Disabilities Act
These examples do not include the many state and local laws that apply to the same conduct. For instance, an employer in the District of Columbia that fires a woman because she is pregnant may be in violation of both the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act.
The following is a chart of wrongful termination and other employment laws.
The left column lists common employment problems, and the right column lists the applicable federal laws. It also highlights common state law employment issues, as well as federal agencies that regulate that area of the law.
*A star beside a law means that you must file an administrative action – like with the EEOC – before you file in court.
Note that more than one may apply to your situation. Use these to conduct your own research or to help you find the right attorney to help you.
|I’ve been treated differently because I am pregnant|
|I am not being paid properly|
|Someone at my work or former workplace is saying things about me that are untrue||
|I got fired because the company didn’t want to pay my benefits|
|The company screwed up my COBRA notice and I lost my health insurance||
|I am being retaliated against at work for
||Anti-retaliation provisions of
|I got fired because I reported wrongdoing, like fraud, at my job.||
|I got fired because I wouldn’t do something illegal at work||
|My boss did something horrible to me at work – like repeatedly making racist jokes and then leaving a noose on my desk||
|My boss or my co-worker threatened to touch me or did touch me without my consent||
There is, however, what attorney’s call a “cause of action” specifically for “wrongful termination,” but the rights are fairly narrow.
Courts generally call the cause of action “wrongful termination in violation of public policy.”
Here is some background on what constitutes wrongful termination in violation of public policy in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The general rule in Virginia is that all employees work at will. An at will employee can be fired or can leave his job at any time, and for almost any reason. While at will employment is the standard throughout the U.S., some states have imposed more limitations on an employer’s ability to fire employees. Virginia, however, has notoriously limited exceptions to the at will rules. The Virginia Supreme Court did recognize one possible category of exceptions in an important case in 1985 called Bowman v. State Bank.
In Bowman, the Court held that an employer could be legally liable for firing employees for reasons that violated public policy. This limited exception gives employees the right to sue if employers fire them for refusing to be part of criminal activities or for exercising rights protected by law. AfterBowman, the courts have been reluctant to expand the situations where employees can sue for wrongful discharge although some recent cases have added additional protections for workers.
Because Virginia laws on wrongful discharge are evolving, it is often helpful to speak with an experienced attorney if you believe your employer wrongfully discharged you.
Wrongful Discharge Laws in Virginia
The first case in Virginia that allowed an employee to sue for wrongful discharge involved an employer firing employees who were shareholders and who refused to vote the way the board of directors wanted them to. Because the plaintiffs had the right to vote the way they wanted, the Court said that this termination violated the public policy of Virginia and was a wrongful discharge. The employees thus had the right to sue for damages.
As more plaintiffs attempted to sue their employers after being fired, the court evolved and made some specific rules on when an employee had a wrongful discharge case. The rules in Virginia now say that an employee can sue for wrongful discharge if:
- The employee exercises a right to do something (or not do something) that a statute specifically entitled the employee to do, and because of that, the employee is fired.
- The employee acts pursuant to a public policy clearly announced by a statute, the employee is a member of the class of people the statute is designed to protect, and then, the employer terminates the employee for acting in accordance with that public policy.
- The employee refused to commit a crime and is fired for it.
Who Can Be Sued?
Traditionally, under Virginia’s narrow rules for wrongful discharge, only an employer could be sued for firing someone in violation of public policy. However, a case called Van Buren v. Grubbin 2012 expanded the rights of employees.
In Van Buren, the owner of a business engaged in sexual harassment and then the victim was fired. He wasn’t the direct employer of the victim, but he did violate public policy by harassing her and he also participated in her termination. The court said the victim could sue.
This decision means that a victim of wrongful discharge in Virginia can now take legal action against:
- A company/employer that fires him in violation of public policy.
- An employee with managerial or supervisory responsibility if he was the one who violated the public policy and if he also participated in firing the worker.
The upshot of the evolution of Virginia wrongful discharge law is that slowly, terminated employees are gaining rights to oppose the most egregiously wrongful firings. Still, many more terminations are morally wrong than are protected by law. An experienced employment lawyer can help you decipher whether you have a legal remedy for your unjust termination.