“I just got fired! Can I sue for wrongful termination?” I hear that a lot from people who’ve lost their jobs and want legal advice about their rights. My answer is almost always no because under Minnesota law, there really is no such thing as a legal claim for “wrongful termination.” And, “wrongful” does not always equate to “unlawful.”
However, there are definitely circumstances when employees are fired in violation of one or more laws. When that happens, their terminations are not only wrongful, but they are also unlawful. In those cases the employees generally have a right to sue their former employers and to recover their lost wages, other damages, and in some cases their attorney’s fees and court costs.
For example, the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) says that employers may not fire (or take other adverse action against) employees based on their “race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, status with regard to public assistance, familial status, membership or activity in a local [human rights] commission, disability, sexual orientation, or age.” The MHRA defines both “sex” and “familial status” to include protections for pregnant women. It also says employers may not fire or otherwise retaliate against employees who exercise their rights under this law.
Another example is the Minnesota Whistleblower Act. Among other things, this statute makes it unlawful for an employer to fire (or take other adverse action against) an employee who: in good faith reports a violation, a suspected violation, or a planned violation of the law to the employer or to the government; is requested by the government to participate in an investigation; or “refuses an employer’s order to perform an action that the employee has an objective basis in fact to believe violates any state or federal law or rule or regulation adopted pursuant to law, and the employee informs the employer that the order is being refused for that reason.”
There are many other state and federal laws that provide similar protections. The common thread running between all of them is the employer’s motivation. If the employer was motivated to fire the employee because of some factor which the law says an employer may not consider, then the employee may have a legal basis for suing the employer. Thus, when I am asked, “Can I sue for wrongful termination?” the answer always depends in part on the evidence of the employer’s motive.
Even when employers do not have an unlawful motive for firing someone, the firing may be in breach of a contract between the employer and the employee. One of the challenges in those situations is that Minnesota, like many states, follows the general rule of “at-will” employment. This means that lacking a clear agreement stating otherwise, an employment relationship is for no particular duration, and employers and employees alike have the right to terminate their employment relationship at any time, with or without prior warnings, notice or cause.
To overcome the presumption of “at-will” employment, there must be evidence of an agreement to continue the employment on stated terms and conditions. This evidence may be found in an actual written contract between the employer and the employee (or between the employer and a union representing its employees). Or, it may be found in an offer letter to the employee, an employee handbook or policy manual, a performance evaluation or disciplinary notice of some sort, other documentation shared between the employee and the employer, or in rare cases verbal promises made by the employer. Careful employers take steps to make sure they do not inadvertently create such contracts. But, when such an agreement can be proved, then firing an employee in violation of the agreement’s terms would be “wrongful” in the sense that it would be an actionable breach of contract.
So, the answer to “Can I sue for wrongful termination?” is far more complex than it may seem. It depends on a number of factors, including the employer’s motivation and any contractual obligations the employer may have. The evidence of those factors must be carefully evaluated in order to determine whether or not the employee has a viable legal claim. If the evidence is strong enough to establish that a “wrongful termination” was actually unlawful, then the employee may have a legal claim worth pursuing.
If you question whether your wrongful termination may have been unlawful, please contact me to discuss your case and your rights.
This article is for general information purposes only and is not to be considered or used as legal advice.
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