Wrongful Termination of College Employees

Getting fired is always painful. The experience becomes all the more stressful when it stems from unfair and illegal decision-making. Many wrongfully terminated employees don't realize that there are state and federal laws in place to prevent such firings from occurring. Most people simply accept their job loss without a fight. There are many misconceptions about why a person can be fired; employers tread on these misconceptions and get away with wrongful termination all the time.

If you believe you've been fired for unfair or illegal reasons, there are legal options worth exploring. Attorney Joe Lento works with college employees who have been wrongfully terminated to hold their workplaces accountable for illegal, unethical practices. There are many protections in place to prevent such firings, and with the right legal advocate by your side, you can right injustices in your own workplace.

Defining Wrongful Termination

In the simplest of terms, wrongful termination refers to the illegal firing of an employee. Though it is largely up to the employer to decide whether to hire or fire a person, there are certain circumstances when the decision will be deemed “wrongful” in the eyes of the law. For instance, if an employer violates the terms of an employment contract or breaks the law when firing someone, their actions can have long-reaching consequences. Federal and state workplace discrimination laws are in place to protect against unfair or biased firing practices.

In order for a wrongful termination claim to be considered valid, employers must violate federal or state laws when they fire someone. Since most states are guided by at-will firing practices, it's possible to be fired at any time. That doesn't mean, however, that an employer can fire someone for any reason they choose. Federal law prevents the firing of an employee based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or any other protected characteristic. Employers are also forbidden from firing someone because they ask for reasonable accommodations for their religious practices or disability.

Was My Firing Wrongful Termination?

There's no easy way to answer this question without first consulting with an experienced wrongful termination attorney. That's because each case varies dramatically from the next. Generally speaking, employees may not be fired for protected activities, including reporting your employer for fraud, unlawful activities, embezzlement, or wage and hour violations. You have the right to refuse to participate in illegal activities in the workplace, and if you lost your job because of these reasons, you might indeed have a viable wrongful termination case.

Those fired for other protected reasons may also have a viable claim. If you were fired based on your age, race, national origin, gender, sex, disability, religion, pregnancy, or veteran status, a wrongful termination claim may be appropriate. Few such cases are ever black and white, though – consulting with an experienced attorney can help you understand your legal options.

Types of Wrongful Termination Lawsuits

Look through the headlines of any major newspaper, and you're likely to see instances of wrongful termination happening all the time. Some types of wrongful termination lawsuits are more common than others, though. Understanding these varieties can help you determine whether or not you have a viable claim. Each claim is unique, so it's best to ask questions of an experienced employment attorney as soon as possible. In the meantime, here are just a few of the most common types of wrongful termination suits:

  • Breach of contract: When a contract is in place, employers and employees must follow the terms and conditions as written. Failure to adhere to an employment contract can lead to wrongful termination lawsuits.
  • Forcing an employee out of a position: Sometimes, an employee is targeted by supervisors for firing. Their working conditions are made intolerable, essentially forcing the employee out of their job. This is another common reason for wrongful termination claims.
  • Violation of public policy: Employers should know and follow the latest employment legislation. When a violation of existing employment laws occurs, this can be grounds for a wrongful termination claim, regardless of whether the employer knew they were violating the law.
  • Whistleblowing or retaliation: After sounding the alarm bell on colleagues or supervisors who are breaking the law, employees have the right to retain their positions without facing retaliation. Any kind of kind of workplace retaliation can be grounds for a lawsuit, especially if the employee is fired after blowing the whistle.
  • Ignoring protected leave: Employees have the right to request and take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. If their request is ignored or unfairly denied, they have the right to pursue a claim against their employer.
  • Workplace harassment: Nobody should face harassment in the workplace of any kind. If you've experienced belittling or threatening behaviors at work, you may have grounds for a lawsuit.
  • Employee discrimination: There are protections in place to prevent discrimination in the workplace. Unfortunately, these laws are often ignored. When discrimination happens, employers can be held responsible in court.
  • Improper accommodations for employees with disabilities: People with disabilities have the right to reasonable accommodations to perform their duties at work. When unfairly accommodated, disabled employees may opt to pursue legal action against their employer.

Title VII, IX Protects Students and College Employees

College students, professors, and other university employees are protected from discrimination by several pieces of legislation. Title VII makes it illegal to discriminate against employees or applicants for employment based on sex. Title IX works in a similar way, outlawing retaliation against someone who files a sex discrimination case.

Title IX governs all schools that receive federal funding. This includes K-12 schools, colleges, and universities. While initially designed to protect employees and students against sexual discrimination, Supreme Court decisions like Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins also held that sex discrimination includes discrimination based on gender stereotypes. Any time a staffing decision is based on sex, Title IX should cover the case.

Steps to Take After Wrongful Termination

If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated from your college or university job, there are a few steps you can take to protect your rights. Time is of the essence – it's important to remember that you have only a few days from the date of your firing to consider any severance packages offered by your employer. If you believe you were fired for discriminatory reasons, you may seek advice from an advisor from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 45 days of when the discrimination occurred. If you plan to file a charge or complaint with the EEOC, you have 180 days to do so. An experienced wrongful termination lawyer can help you understand the deadlines for your specific claim.

In order to demonstrate that you were indeed wrongfully terminated, you'll want to document your experiences. Some opt to journal about the discrimination they faced, keeping careful notes on exactly what happened and when. Other documents can be just as useful; your personnel file, performance reviews, pay stubs, union contracts, emails, and other direct communication that reveal details about your termination can all help support your claim.

While you may be tempted to share your story with your social network, it's important to stay off of social media when discussing your firing or discriminatory treatment. Attorneys for your employer will scour your online persona for anything that may help their case. Even the most innocuous posts can be used against you, so it's best to stay off of social media platforms altogether following wrongful termination.

Wrongful termination claims are very complex. They can be incredibly challenging to face on your own. If you're serious about holding discriminatory employers responsible for their practices, you'll want to solicit the support of an experienced employment attorney. They can help analyze your situation and help you understand your options before moving forward. If you believe you've been wrongfully terminated, schedule a consultation with an experienced employment attorney as soon as possible.

Damages in Wrongful Termination Cases

Wrongful termination claims are civil lawsuits in which the person filing the lawsuit – the plaintiff – is asking the court to order their employer to pay monetary damages to compensate them for the losses suffered by job termination. Every case is different, so it's impossible to know the exact value of a wrongful termination claim before speaking with an attorney. Some damages typically covered by wrongful termination claims include:

  • Lost wages: Plaintiffs are often eligible for the wages they would have received had their employer not fired them. Earned and unpaid wages like overtime can also be included in the settlement. This amount may be reduced by any wages you earn after termination. For instance, if you're fired and seek employment at a new workplace for the lower rate of pay, you'll continue to receive lost wage damages equal to the difference of what your old job paid versus what you're earning in your new role.
  • Lost benefits: Benefits like medical and dental insurance, 401ks, stock options, pensions, and other retirement plans can all be factored into a wrongful termination settlement. The value of these benefits is calculated and added to the total damages sustained because of the firing.
  • Pain and suffering: It can be hard to imagine assigning a dollar value to the pain and suffering endured by those who have been wrongfully terminated. The reality is, though, that pain and suffering have real world financial consequences for the plaintiff. For instance, if you suffered emotional distress and needed help from a therapist and psychiatrist to get through, the expenses associated with those appointments can be included in a settlement.
  • Punitive damages: Awarded on top of any compensatory damages, punitive damages serve as deterrents for employers who wrongfully terminate employees. These kinds of damages are fairly uncommon and are typically only awarded in especially egregious instances of wrongful termination.
  • Legal fees: In some wrongful termination claims, you may be able to recover court costs and attorney's fees from your employer.

At-Will Employment and Wrongful Termination

In all U.S. states minus Montana, employment relationships are assumed to be at-will. This means that either the employee or the employer may sever the professional relationship at any time for any reason. This gives employers the free reign to fire employees whenever they wish.

Employment at-will is not, however, a blank check to terminate employees for no reason. There are limits in place to protect employees from discriminatory firings. In collegiate workplace settings, there is often a complaint process that must be followed to fire an employee. Every university or college will have its own procedures for doing so, but the process should be transparent above all else.

How Job Contracts Impact Lawsuits

Not every employee is considered at-will. If you have a written contract with your university or college that sets forth the conditions and length of your employment, you're not an at-will employee. For instance, your contract may state that you'll be employed for a specific duration. You might also have an offer letter that promises continued employment for a given amount of time. With such contracts in place, you may be able to enforce them in court.

Implied contracts are the other exception to the at-will rule. This type of contract can be difficult to uphold since they are harder to prove. Courts look at a number of factors to determine whether an implied contract actually exists. Factors include duration of employment, frequency of promotions, performance reviews, assurances of continued employment, and whether or not you assumed you were a long-term or permanent employee when you were hired.

Dedicated to Protecting Your Workplace Rights

If you have been wrongfully terminated from your college or university, it's crucial to contact an experienced employment lawyer to uphold your rights and help you secure the best possible outcome in court. You don't have to go this alone. Attorney Joseph D. Lento is passionate about protecting the workplace rights of employees everywhere. He and his team will go to bat for you and ensure you receive the maximum compensation possible. Contact the Lento Law Firm today by dialing 888-535-3686.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact our offices today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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