What is a “Wrongful” Termination?

After having five or six wrongful termination questions in as many days, we thought it would be a good idea to discuss what a “wrongful” termination claim really is.  It seems that many people don’t seem to understand what these claims are about.

We start our analysis by recognizing that just about everyone that has ever been terminated from a job thinks that their termination was “wrongful.”  In their mind, what the employer did was “wrong,” or the reason given by the employer was “wrong,” or the allegations of a co-employee about improper conduct were “wrong.”  People seem to think that if the employer relied on some information that was incorrect or disputed, then their termination must have been “wrongful.”  That is not normally the case.

Illinois, like most other states, follows the doctrine of “at will” employment.  That is, the normal employment relationship between an employer and employee is a consensual relationship at the will of each of them.  If one or the other decides they no longer wish to be in the employment relationship, they each have the right to terminate the employment without repercussion.  With an “at-will” employment relationship, the employer can fire an employee for any reason or no reason at all.  However, there are some exceptions to this general rule which do restrict an employer’s right to terminate an employee.  These restrictions fall into a few broad categories:

1)  Employment Contracts — Not all employment relationships are “at will.”   Some relationships are governed by an employment contract that may have specific contractual requirements that govern how and when an employee can be terminated.  Employment contracts are seen with highly paid or specialized employees as well as union employees, where the employment arrangement is governed by a collective bargaining agreement.  Yet another example might be a situation where the employer provides an employment manual or otherwise adopts rules that govern how and when termination may occur.  In each of these examples, the specific rules governing termination will normally spell out the proper process by which the employer can terminate the employment relationship.  If that process is not followed, the termination may constitute a wrongful termination.

2)  Anti-Discrimination Policies — State and Federal law recognize that a person should not be discriminated against because of their age, race, sex, religion, disability, and national origin.  As a result, any attempt to terminate an employee based on one of these protected statuses may be considered a wrongful termination.

3)  Violation of Public Policy — State and federal law also provide that there are certain types of conduct in which an employee should be allowed to engage without fear of retaliation from their employer.  Some common examples of this might be an employee who is a member of an armed forces reserve unit that needs time off for training, a person that has to be off work for a family emergency under the Family Medical Leave Act, and an employee that “blows the whistle” on an employer’s improper or illegal conduct.  An additional example involves an employee that exercises their right to receive workers’ compensation benefits.  The Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that it is improper for an employer to terminate a worker because they have exercised their right to recover workers’ compensation benefits.  See Kelsay v. Motorola, 74 Ill.2d 172, 384 N.E.2d 353, 23 Ill.Dec. 559 (1978).  In each of these examples, the law recognizes that the employee’s conduct should not be punished and is, therefore, protected.

The above list of restrictions to the at-will employment doctrine is not meant to be a comprehensive list.  It is meant only to help demonstrate that the term “wrongful,” when used in “wrongful termination” refers to the violation of some legal right, not whether the information the employer used, or the decision making process, was correct or not.  Absent the violation of a legal right, there is little by way of restrictions on the termination of employment.

Hanagan & McGovern is a Mt. Vernon, Illinois, workers’ compensation and personal injury law firm serving southern and central Illinois.   If you have questions concerning this article or have other workers compensation questions, please contact us.