Quitting your job feels great if you are leaving it in order to begin another job that pays better or if you get to brag to your friends about joining the Great Resignation. If it is your employer’s decision for you to stop working for them, however, it is natural to feel that your employer’s decision was unfair. When is the sense of injustice just a natural part of the pain of getting fired, and when is it an indication that your employer violated your rights by ending the employment relationship against your wishes? Wrongful termination of employment is when an employer fires an employee for a legally prohibited reason, for example, in retaliation for the employee’s engagement in a protected activity or out of discrimination based on the employee’s race, sex, disability, or some other protected characteristic. The Houston wrongful termination lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP can help you demonstrate that your employer’s decision to fire you was unfair and a violation of your rights.
Can You Sue for Wrongful Termination if the Employment Relationship Was At-Will?
In employment relationships governed by an employment contract, claims of wrongful termination of employment often occur in the context of breach of contract disputes. In other words, if the employee remained in compliance with all the conditions of his employment contract, but the employer terminated the employment relationship prematurely without giving the employee the contractually obligated compensation for early termination, then not only is this a case of wrongful termination of employment, but it is also a case of breach of contract.
However, wrongful termination disputes can also arise in the context of at-will employment. Texas law permits at-will employment relationships in which the parties do not sign an employment contract, and both parties are free to end the employment relationship at any time and for any reason. If you started your job without signing an employment contract, you can safely assume that your employer hired you on an at-will basis. However, your company probably has an employee handbook that outlines the terms of your at-will employment. In an at-will employment relationship, your employer does not need a reason to fire you. They can fire you because of poor job performance, financial hardships within the company, or even no reason at all. Despite this, wrongful termination of employment is still a meaningful concept within at-will employment relationships because even if an employer hires an employee on an at-will basis, the employer does not have the right to fire the employee for a discriminatory reason or in retaliation for the employee engaging in a legally protected activity.
Wrongful Termination, Discrimination, and Retaliation
Whether or not the employee has signed an employment contract, most disputes over wrongful employment termination relate to discrimination or employer retaliation. Discrimination is when an employer mistreats an employee by terminating the employee’s job or taking some other adverse action (such as demotion or an unfairly negative performance review) against the employee because of a protected characteristic of the employee. Protected characteristics are physical characteristics and aspects of the employee’s life history or family backgrounds, such as race, sex, age, marital status, pregnancy, disability, sexual orientation, or country of origin. In order to prevail in a discrimination claim, you must not only prove that the employer knew about your protected characteristic but that the protected characteristic was a factor in the employer’s decision to terminate the employment relationship.
Retaliation is when an employer takes an adverse action (including, but not limited to, termination of employment) against the employee in response to the employee engaged in a legally protected activity. In the context of employment law, protected activities are things that employees have the right to do without risk of retaliation, even though they might cause financial losses to the employer or damage the employer’s reputation. Examples of protected activities include taking a medical leave or family caregiving leave, requesting accommodations for a disability, filing a workers’ compensation claim, or reporting misconduct or legal violations in the workplace to the relevant authorities. If your employer fires you or declines to renew your employment contract after you engage in a protected activity, you may have a claim for employer retaliation or wrongful termination, even if your employer provided some other justification for terminating your employment.
Separation Agreements and Wrongful Termination
Employers sometimes offer separation agreements, including severance packages, to employees when it is the employer who decides to end the employment relationship. This often happens when the company must lay off multiple employees because of corporate downsizing, extended financial hardships, or a buyout or merger with another company. The severance packages often include several months of salary after the last day of work, as well as a continuation of health insurance benefits for the rest of the calendar year.
If employees are being laid off and your employer is offering you money and health insurance, it may seem like a sweet deal. The catch is that if you sign the separation agreement, you waive the right to sue your employer for wrongful termination of employment. Therefore, before you decide to sign, you should carefully consider whether the reason your employer chose to let you go was a matter of discrimination or retaliation. If you are the only one your employer is letting go, is it really just that you drew the short straw? Are all of the employees who are being laid off alike in terms of a protected characteristic? Did your employer just happen to offer you the separation agreement after you complained about discrimination or requested a family leave? These are all important subjects to discuss with an employment lawyer.
Contact HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP About Wrongful Termination of Employment
The Houston employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP can help you file a wrongful termination of employment claim. Contact the employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP in Houston, Texas, to set up a consultation.