Belleville: 618-234-9800 | Edwardsville: 618-656-2244 | ST. LOUIS: 314-421-2325

by Mark S. Schuver, Shareholder

Almost everyone who is fired from a job believes that their termination is “wrongful.” However, just because you believe that your employer was wrong for firing you does not mean that you have grounds for filing a lawsuit. Rather than referring to these types of employment lawsuits as “wrongful termination,” a better name would be “unlawful termination.”

Unless you have an employment contract or union collective bargaining agreement that sets out contractual terms for how and when your employer can terminate your employment, almost all of us are “employees at-will.” As an employee at-will, your employer can generally fire you for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. Your employer can simply wake up one morning and decide that he or she doesn’t like you anymore and terminate you. Your employer can even terminate you because they honestly believe that you did something that you didn’t do. For instance, if your employer legitimately believes that you stole something from work, they can terminate your employment even if your employer was mistaken about the facts and you did not steal anything. Under those circumstances, there is often very little that you can do to legally protect your employment.

In certain limited circumstances, however, the legislature and the courts have determined that an employer may not fire an employee because the reason or motivation for doing so is not a legitimate or lawful ground for termination. The list of reasons where the law prohibits an employer from terminating an employee is long and complicated, and you should always consult with a qualified employment law attorney before deciding whether the facts and circumstances of your termination fall into one or more of these unlawful categories. The most common types of unlawful terminations are where you can prove that (1) your employer fired you because you are a member of a protected class; or (2) your employer fired you because you have engaged in a protected activity.
Protected Class: Various federal, state and local laws prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on their sex, race, color, national origin, age or religion. Depending on the jurisdiction, other classes may also be protected, such as sexual orientation. Just because you are a member of a particular protected class does not mean that your employer cannot fire you. It means that they are prohibited from firing you if the reason why they fired you was because you were a member of that protected class. For instance, an employer is prohibited from firing you because you are a woman, a minority, over the age of 40, or because of your religion. It is the employer’s unlawful motivation for firing you that is prohibited.

Protected Activity: Various laws prohibit an employer from retaliating against an employee because the employee engaged in a certain legally protected activity. The list of protected activities is also long and complex and you should always consult with a qualified employment law attorney if you believe that you were fired for engaging in something that is legally protected. Some common examples of protected activities include the following:

  • Your employer fired you because you reported a work related injury or pursued a worker’s compensation claim;
  • Your employer fired you because you refused to do something that would violate a law, regulation or ordinance;
  • Your employer fired you because you reported unlawful activity by the employer to a governmental agency or legal authorities.

In all of these circumstances, the employee must offer reasonable proof that the reason the employer discriminated against you or terminated your employment is because you were a member of a protected class or engaged in a protected activity. That proof can take various forms, including circumstantial evidence.

Other grounds may exist for pursuing a claim for wrongful discharge other than those based on protected class and protected activities. Under certain circumstances, even when no contract or collective bargaining agreement exists, terms contained in policy manuals and employee handbooks, as well as other documents and verbal promises, may create contractual rights that can be enforced by an employee against their employer. Employers can also be liable to an employee for fraud and defamation.
If you believe that you were terminated, disciplined or discriminated against unlawfully, you should contact Mark Schuver and the Litigation Team at Mathis, Marifian & Richter, Ltd., for assistance.

Mark S. Schuver is a shareholder with MM&R who has 30 years of experience in civil litigation, employment law, personal injury and product liability.

Professional Services Disclaimer: Please note that the information presented here is as an educational service, and while it contains information about legal issues, it is not legal advice. No warranty is made regarding the applicability of the information presented to a particular client situation, and the information set forth is not a substitute for original legal research, analysis and drafting for a particular client situation.