Labor and Employment

Recovery Theories for Wrongful Termination

Losing your job hurts emotionally and financially. If you feel you were let go unfairly, you may wonder if there is any legal action you can take against your employer.

Unless you are working with an employment contract or a collective bargaining agreement, your employment is probably"at-will." This means your employer isn't legally required to give a good reason, or any reason, to let you go. It also means that you are free to leave your job without giving a reason.

An at-will employee may be able to bring a lawsuit against an employer for a discharge that violates specific state or federal laws, like anti-discrimination laws or whistleblower protection laws. In most other cases, however, an at-will employee can't take legal action against the employer, even if the firing was unfair or unwarranted.

Because of this harsh result, many states are starting to allow at-will employees to recover money against employers who act in particularly harmful ways.

There are two main legal theories that allow at-will employees to sometimes recover in wrongful termination lawsuits: violation of public policy and breach of implied good faith and fair dealing.

Violation of Public Policy

A public policy is a belief or rule that benefits the public. The public policy against race discrimination is shown in employment discrimination laws. An employee who is fired because of race or sex discrimination generally has a remedy against the employer under a state or federal law.

Some other public policy violations are not clearly spelled out by statute. Yet, courts sometimes recognize cases where an employer clearly violates an important public policy in firing an employee. Most states will allow these employees to recover against the employer in a wrongful termination action.

Examples of public policy violations that often result in recoveries by terminated employees include:

  • Firing an employee for refusing to violate the law
  • Firing an employee for reporting a violation of the law by the employer
  • Firing an employee for exercising a statutory or constitutional right
  • Firing employees because they served on a jury, answered a subpoena or attended a civil deposition.

In such cases, employees may recover lost wages and punitive damages. Punitive damages is money awarded to the employee in order to punish the employer.

Breach of Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing

In addition to allowing lawsuits against employers who violate public policy, some states allow a wrongful termination claim by an at-will employee based upon the theory of a breach of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. In such cases,it's alleged that the employer cheated the employees by firing them.

Sales employees have been successful in these type of actions. They sometimes win cases by showing their employer fired them to avoid paying them commissions. Similarly, employers who fire employees so that they do not have to pay end-of-year bonuses may also face such a claim.

In these cases, the employees are usually entitled to recover the unpaid commissions or bonuses. They are not, however, generally able to collect punitive or other damages.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I was fired for taking a work break that's required by law. Can I bring a wrongful termination lawsuit against my employer?
  • What if I feel I have to quit my job to avoid doing something illegal. Can I sue my employer for wrongful termination?
  • My employer didn't give any reason for letting me go. Was this a wrongful discharge?

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