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Wrongful Termination: Know the Basics

Q: I believe I was wrongfully fired from my job. What can I do? 
A: Ohio is an “at-will” employment state. This means that most employers may fire (terminate) or discipline an employee for any reason at any time, including a bad reason or no reason at all. The only employees who are not “at-will” are certain government employees, those who have employment contracts, and those who belong to a union with a collective bargaining agreement.
 
Q: Even if I’m an at-will employee, could I still have a wrongful termination case?
A: Yes. There are many exceptions to the at-will employment rule, and most are laws forbidding the termination of employment for specific reasons. In bringing a wrongful termination suit, you would have to claim that your employer violated one or more of these laws. Most of the time, wrongful termination cases are based on the reason for—not the fairness of—the termination.

Q: What reasons would make a termination “wrongful”? 
A:  There are many reasons that a termination might be considered “wrongful.” For example, you are probably aware that employers are not allowed to terminate employees because of their gender, race, national origin, age or disability. Employers are also not permitted to terminate employees who are identified with certain protected classes, or because of military service, or for taking certain types of medical leave, filing a Workers’ Compensation claim, or for certain types of whistle-blowing activity. Certain types of terminations have also been found to violate Ohio’s “public policy,” including termination for filing an Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) complaint or serving on a jury.  

Generally, what makes a termination “wrongful” involves a complex and sometimes confusing web of statutory and common law. It is wise to consult a knowledgeable attorney to determine if your employer has violated any law in terminating you. You should do this as soon as possible, because some of these laws have a statute of limitations as short as three months, and if you do not take action you may lose your claims. 

Q: Can my employer wrongfully demote me or discipline me? 
A: Yes. Just as with termination, the legality of negative employment actions often comes down to the employer’s motivation. The same laws prohibiting terminations for particular reasons often prohibit certain types of lesser adverse action, like a demotion or other discipline. Such discipline must usually rise to a certain level of severity, however, before you can hope to bring successful legal action against your employer. 
 
Q: Can I take my employer to court because I have a hostile work environment? 
A: Employees have a right to a workplace free of discrimination, such as sexual or racial harassment.  If the hostility in the workplace environment rises to a certain level of severity, it may warrant legal action. General hostility that is not based on illegal discrimination usually will not give rise to a claim. If illegal harassment is occurring, you should complain. In fact, employees often are obligated to complain before a court will find an employer liable for allowing a hostile work environment. Complaint procedures are generally found in an employee handbook, and should be followed if possible.
 
Q: What if my employer fires me because I’ve reported workplace discrimination?
A: Employees who complain about illegal employment actions are protected from such retaliation under some—though not all—laws prohibiting adverse employment actions and hostile work environments. To be protected from your employer’s retaliation, you must usually have a good faith belief that a violation occurred, although you do not need to prove that such a violation actually occurred. 

Q: If I take my employer to court for terminating me illegally, what are some possible remedies? 

A: Generally, remedies for illegal termination are dictated by the specific law that the employer violated when terminating you. If you succeed, a court may award you back pay, front pay, compensatory damages for emotional distress, punitive damages, attorney fees and other types of damages, or some combination of these.
 
Q: Where can I find more information?
A: Visit the Ohio Employment Lawyers’ Association at www.oelasmart.net or contact an attorney.  

6/17/2012

This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by attorney Edward R. Forman of Marshall and Morrow LLC in Columbus.
Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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