Would you know a wrongful termination, if you saw one? Would it depend on which side of the equation you are on? What information or details could change your mind? These are some questions that arise when an employee is terminated and believes it was wrongful, especially when both sides appear to have legitimate legal support.
For instance, Joetta Rupert believed she was wrongfully terminated and filed a lawsuit against her former employer, Kennewick Irrigation District (KID). She is a former manager for KID and claims she was wrongfully terminated not only as retaliation for allegations she made against a board member for misuse of funds, but that because she was a woman she had suffered discrimination and a hostile work environment while working at KID. The KID board, however, argued that her termination was because of her misuse of sick leave to attend non-work related court proceedings. The court ruled in favor of KID, without going into detail, and dismissed Rupert’s lawsuit. Even if there may have been discrimination, it appears that the court found the misuse of sick leave benefits to be a legitimate reason for termination.
Gender discrimination, harassment, hostile work environment and retaliation are all against the law. If these actions are the root cause for a wrongful termination, then the court may punish the employer. However, there are situations where such prohibited actions occur, but a termination is not considered wrongful because they were not the reason for the termination. In these situations, an employer may be at fault for allowing or perpetuating discriminatory and hostile actions, but the terminated employee is not faultless. Employment relationships are based on contractual agreements. An employee’s breach of these agreements can be superior grounds for dismissal. This is not to say that any employee breach in agreement will trump wrongful termination claims. But courts look to see the “real” reason behind a termination. If the breach can be linked to the reason for termination, then it will be considered. Therefore, if an employee wants to bring a wrongful termination lawsuit, it is important to determine if that employee has “clean hands,” so to speak. If an employer has a legitimate legal reason for termination, such as abuse of sick leave benefits, then it is possible for the employer to prevail in a lawsuit even if there is discrimination in the workplace because the employee did not have “clean hands” and had, in fact, broken the employment agreement.
Sick Leave Laws
Federal law does not require sick leave beyond the protections provided in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA provides 12 weeks of unpaid time off and protects an employee’s employment status during extended medical leave. It prevents employers from retaliating against employees who take extended medical leave and it allows an employee to return to work in the same or similar position as when the employee took leave. Some cities have sick leave laws, such as Seattle, that provided mandatory sick leave. Generally speaking, sick leave a part of the negotiated contract between an employee and an employer. This means that employers can set the guidelines for the amount and use of sick leave. It also means that violating or abusing the provided sick leave benefit could be grounds for reprimand or even termination.
Wrongful termination, sick leave, FMLA and discrimination situations can be complex on either side of the equation. Our employment law attorneys have experience in defending complex employment cases for employers and employees.