What comprises Wrongful Termination?

By Jack Tuckner, Esq.

If you feel you are being wrongfully terminated or you are wrongfully discharged, or dismissed, people use that term “wrongful termination” all the time. The thing is, it’s not really a thing. It’s not a claim. It’s not a cause of action – it’s more of a term of art that comprises several different notions of illegal or unjust firings from your job.

So what comprises wrongful termination? Either, [one] breach of contract – either an individual personal services contract you have with your company, which is rare, or, breach of a collectively bargained union contract or, two, discrimination based on something about you that federal or your state law protects [against], like race, color, age, sex, pregnancy, etc.

Or, three, retaliation, when your company subjects you to backlash or a hostile work environment based on your complaint – your protected complaint about discriminatory treatment. That’s basically it for wrongful termination claims in the United States.

There are several lesser claims that aren’t in every state such as, violations of public policy, your state’s constitution, if you have been asked to violate the law and you refuse, or breach of a so-called ‘implied contract,’ i.e., if you have a handbook, or representations were made, promises that were not adhered to, or a so-called breach of a covenant of good faith and fair dealing – a tort claim in some states. But as a practical matter, these are not claims that are successfully brought very often.

So the basic wrongful discharge claims are – discrimination based on a protected status or activity, retaliation based on a protected discrimination complaint, or breach of a private personal or collective union contract.