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Wednesday, Jul 09, 2014

Legal Ease: Firing doesn’t have to be fair



Q: I was “wrongfully terminated” from my job. What can I do about it?

Answer: This is one of the most often-asked questions I receive from people who have lost their jobs, and it’s one of the most difficult to explain. More often than not, there is nothing you can do.

First, Florida is an “at will” employment state. Under the law, unless you have an employment contract that provides for termination only “for cause,” you can be terminated for any reason ― good or bad, true or false. Many people say the reason their employer gave for termination is not true. Unfortunately, an untrue reason, although unfair, is not necessarily illegal.

However, there are laws that protect employees from illegal discrimination. Were you subject to any racial slurs by supervisors or managers? Did anyone make comments about your age? Was your supervisor making sexual advances or inappropriate sexual comments? Was anyone critical of the time you took off for an illness or to take care of a family member? Did you recently complain about your pay? These are just some of the areas that need to be explored to determine whether an employee was terminated for an illegal reason.

Only if you can show some illegal basis for the termination can you claim you have been wrongfully terminated. Even then, in most cases, your employer must have at least 15 employees to face such a claim. However, for age discrimination claims, an employer must have 20 employees. An employer accused of a violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act must have at least 50 employees, and the employee must have been employed for at least a year. Each law has its own set of rules, time parameters and relief.

If you can pinpoint an illegal basis for your claim, the next inquiry has to be: What did you do about it when it happened? In most cases, if you did nothing, the claim is more difficult to pursue. Also, if the company has a policy handbook that prohibits such discriminatory behavior (and most companies do), the handbook will require the employee to complain to HR so that prompt remedial action can be taken.

The reason the company requires that you complain immediately is simple: If an employer is not told about some illegal behavior, how can it be fixed? Similarly, if an employee complains about a supervisor’s behavior and the problem goes away, that is the desired result and no claim can be brought.

So before you claim that you have been “wrongfully terminated,” ask whether the company has done anything illegal as opposed to just being “unfair.”

And when in doubt, consult an experienced employment lawyer.

Constantine W. Papas specializes in employment law. He can be reached at (813) 684-7104 or cwp@dean papaslaw.com. The information provided in this column is for informational purposes only and should not be considered specific legal advice.