When Can an Employer Fire Me Without Cause?
Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.
Getting fired can be an incredibly distressing experience, especially when you didn't do anything wrong.
If you don't know why you were fired or believe your employer isn't being honest about their reasons, learning more about wrongful termination laws can help you decide what to do next.
In many cases, you can be fired without cause. Nearly all states have at-will employment. Employment is probably at-will if:
- The job is for an indefinite amount of time
- Either the employee or employer can terminate the job at any time
If you are an at-will employee, your employer generally doesn't need a reason to fire you, but at-will employment laws vary by state. For example, Montana only allows at-will employment during a probationary period, while some states have very few restrictions.
At-will employment doesn't apply if you have a contract to complete a certain amount of work or work until a specific date. In these cases, the employer could be in violation of the employment contract if you're fired without cause.
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There are many illegal reasons to fire someone, even if they're an at-will employee. Depending on your location and the circumstances surrounding your termination, your employer could have violated the law by firing you.
An implied contract could limit your employer's ability to fire you. Implied contracts arise from an employer's verbal statements or written policies, like an employee handbook. For example, a company policy may state that employees will get a written warning before being fired. You might have a wrongful termination case if your employer violated an implied contract.
State and federal laws protect certain groups of people from employment discrimination, particularly if you work for a larger company. Your employer probably can't fire you due to your:
- Sex, including pregnancy
- National origin
- Age if you're over 40
Sexual orientation and gender identity are also protected classes in many areas.
Employers can't fire people as retaliation for legally protected actions. You might have a wrongful termination claim if you were fired after:
- Reporting discrimination or sexual harassment
- Filing a worker's compensation claim
- Participating in collective bargaining agreements or joining a union
- Taking legally protected medical leave
Additionally, whistleblower laws protect those who report certain violations of health and safety laws.
Some state laws have public policy exceptions to at-will employment and may prevent employers from firing you for:
- Refusing to break a law
- Reporting a possible violation of the law
- Performing a legal duty
Public policy protections vary between states, so it's important to check local laws if you believe you were terminated for one of these reasons.
A few states have covenant of good faith employment laws. These laws say that employers can't fire employees in bad faith or if the employer is motivated by malice. An employer who fires a long-term employee right before the employee receives a large bonus or retirement benefits is one example of a possible bad-faith termination.
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Although you may be angry, be careful about how you communicate with your employer. In most cases, you should avoid making accusations and be careful when speaking with coworkers. Don't do anything illegal, like stealing company property.
However, do what you can to preserve evidence. You may wish to:
- Preserve text messages, emails and other communications from the employer
- Note any important dates and times of events leading up to your termination while they are fresh in your mind
- Make notes of names and contact information for coworkers or others who may be witnesses
Next, consider whether there's a government agency that can help. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) helps with some discrimination cases. State agencies may also be able to help with wrongful termination claims.
Finally, it's often a good idea to contact an employment lawyer. Wrongful discrimination cases are challenging, and laws vary significantly between states. Therefore, getting advice from an expert right away can be crucial.
What you need to prove can vary based on where you are and the details of your case. However, you'll need to prove that your employer's reason for firing you isn't true. Employers rarely admit to wrongful termination and may claim that you were fired for misconduct, poor performance or due to budget cuts. You'll also need to prove that the employer's actual reason for firing you violated the law.
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