The number one question employment lawyers get from prospective clients is: “Do I have a legal case for wrongful termination.”
Under Florida Law, and in most States, employees are hired on an at-will basis. This means that unless there is an employment contract, an employee can be hired or fired for any reason, so long as it is not an illegal reason.
Employees have a common misconception that an unethical or wrong reason is an illegal reason. Our Court system and laws do not permit a lawsuit to be filed for wrongful termination simply because it was unfair or just plain wrong, or even if it is a clear mistake. Under Florida Law, a wrongful termination exists if:
1. The termination is a breach of a written employment contract;
2. The termination is a result of Discrimination; or
3. The termination is in retaliation for the employee engaging in protected activity.
In the case of a breach of contract, the typical case is the one where the contract calls for a specific duration in the employment relationship and termination can only occur for “just cause.” What constitutes just cause is a question of fact which can be determined by a jury through the litigation process.
If there is no contract, a wrongful termination may be legally actionable if protected discrimination occurs. The protected traits are age, gender, race, ethnic background, disability, religion, or genetics. To have a wrongful termination case under discrimination, the employee must be able to present evidence and prove that the motivating reason for the termination was illegal discrimination.
The third way that an employee may be illegally terminated is if the employee was engaged in protected activity and the termination was motivated because of the employee’s participation in the protected activity. Protected activity constitute anything that the employee has a legal right to complain or engage the employer about. For instance, if an employee complains, in good faith, about being discriminated because of one of the aforementioned protected traits, then that is protected activity and the employer can not retaliate against the employee for asserting such right. There are numerous other examples of protected activity which include Whistle-blower protections, protections for complaining about being paid accurately, serving for jury duty, participating in government investigations, and many more types of specific activity which the State legislature of the Federal Legislation has chosen to enforce.
You should be mindful that the laws governing entitlement to Unemployment Benefits are totally different than the laws governing a wrongful termination. An employee may be entitled to unemployment benefits regardless of whether an illegal or legal termination occurred.
Indeed, employment law cases are very fact intensive and cover a lot of laws that are not normally known even by experienced attorneys. Additionally, many employment laws, including the laws that protect employees from discrimination, are very time sensitive, meaning, if you do not assert your rights within a specific period of time (varies from law to law), then you would forever lose your rights to pursue such claims. Therefore, you should seek the advice and counsel of an experienced employment lawyer to assess your case as soon as possible once you believe a violation of your rights have occurred.