If you've recently been fired or laid off, you may be wondering whether you have any legal claims against your employer. Many fired employees don't: Because employees are generally presumed to work "at will," they can quit at any time, and they can be fired at any time, for any reason that isn't illegal. (See Nolo's Employment At Will: What Does It Mean? for more on how at-will employment works.) So, for example, an employee who is fired for poor performance, attendance problems, or misconduct -- or even for just being a poor fit or "not working out" -- generally won't have any recourse against their employers.
This doesn't mean that every firing is legal, however. Even at-will employees can't be fired for discriminatory reasons, in retaliation for reporting harassment or other wrongdoing, or because they exercised a legal right, for example. In this situation, an employee should consider consulting with an employment attorney.
Wrongful termination is a catchall category that refers to any illegal reason for firing an employee, such as:
In addition, an employee may have a claim for breach of contract. Not all employees work at will. If an employee has a contract agreeing that the employee may be fired only for certain reasons (such as committing financial malfeasance or gross misconduct), the employer may fire the employee only for those reasons. Otherwise, the employee may have a claim for breach of employment contract.
If the circumstances of your firing suggest that it might have been illegal, you may want to consult with an employment lawyer. A lawyer can review the facts and assess whether you have any potential legal claims. If so, a lawyer can help you think through what you want to do (if anything) to assert your rights. For example, you might want to try to negotiate a severance package, demand a settlement, or file administrative charges or a lawsuit against the employer. On the other hand, you may decide it makes more sense just to move on. But the only way to know for sure how strong your claims are and what options you have is to talk to a lawyer.
It's especially important to consider a legal consultation if you are asked to sign a waiver or release of claims, in which you give up your right to sue the employer. Many employers require employees to sign this type of agreement as a condition of getting severance (or getting a better severance package). Once you sign a release, it's very difficult to undo -- even if you later discover that you have valuable legal claims against the company. Before you sign, you'll want to know what claims you're giving up and what they might be worth.
Here are some situations that should prompt you to consider getting legal help:
In any of these situations, your firing may have been illegal -- or it may not. An attorney can help you sift the facts, sort out your claims, and decide how to proceed.