Even in at-will employment states, there are times when firing an employee is against the law.
Colorado is an at-will employment state, which means that an employer does not have to have any valid reason or good cause to fire employees. Employers can be unfair or unreasonable in making decisions to fire, without being legally liable to the fired employees.
Even in at-will employment states, there are times when firing an employee is against the law. When that happens to an employee, there may be a claim for wrongful termination.
Breaching Employment Agreements
At will employment assumes that there is no employment contract. If there is, and the employee is fired and the firing is a breach of an employment agreement, an employee may have a contractual suit for the breach.
Bear in mind that a promise to employ does not have to be in an employment contract; oftentimes language that constitutes a written agreement for employment is contained in employment manuals, policies and procedures, or noncompete agreements that people are made to sign as a condition of employment. The breached promise to employ can even be unwritten (oral).
Damages can include what you would have expected to earn had the contract not been wrongfully terminated, and possibly loss of opportunity, if you gave up the chance to make more money elsewhere, in order to take the position where you were fired from.
Violation of State or Federal Laws
Wrongful termination also happens when federal or state discrimination laws are violated.
For example, laws protect people from being fired because of their age, nationality, or gender so long as their company employs 15-20 people (depending on the type of discrimination that is alleged). Colorado’s laws supplement federal laws, and provide additional protection for firing people because of sexual orientation, or perceived orientation.
Most employers will deny that discrimination is the reason for firing an employee, but often, comments made during the course of employment or even the creation of an environment that is hostile or insulting to a sex or gender, can provide evidence of a discriminatory workplace that can give rise to a wrongful termination claim.
Whistleblowing and Disability
Employees are often terminated because they complain about things that a company is doing illegally. Federal law protects people from being fired for this kind of whistleblowing.
Whistleblowing includes firing people for complaining that a company is not complying with laws that require employees to be given medical leave, firing employees when they complain they are not being paid mandatory overtime pay, firing employees just because they make a workers’ compensation claim, or firing employees who refuse to do things that may be illegal.
Federal law protects employment for people with disabilities. It is wrongful termination to fire someone for not being able to do their job because of a disability,when the employer can, but refuses to, make an accommodation for the employee’s disability.
Numerous other laws can give rise to a cause of action. Someone cannot be fired for taking military leave. Colorado also prohibits employer retaliation when employees take time off because of domestic violence or to care for adopted children.
Wrongful termination is a simple term for a complex web of federal and state laws. Do not assume that you know whether your firing was legal. The employment and business law attorneys at Ball & Barry law are here to help you determine if you have been fired illegally.