Imagine this: you have just been fired. A million things are running through your head. What will you do to support your family? Why did this happen? What can you do?
Losing a job is a traumatic experience. Many, many people are fired for illegitimate, immoral, and flat-out stupid reasons. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these individuals have no claim for wrongful termination. The law is largely stacked in favor of employers, so it is difficult for a wronged employee to seek any redress through the courts. However, this hefty power is not a blank check to fire anyone for anyone reason. Below is an overview of when a wrongful termination is actionable.
In both Missouri and Kansas, the vast majority of employment is "at-will." This means that an employee can quit at any time for any reason or no reason at all. An employer might not give a favorable reference depending on how the employee leaves, particularly if the employee fails to give a two-week notice. However, the employer can't force an employee to come back to work and cannot sue the employee for failing to come to work.
Turnabout is fair play, though: the employer has an identical right. The employer can fire an employee for any reason or no reason at all. This means that an employee cannot sue an employer just because the employee if fired for a "bad"reason. For example, an employer could fire an employee for generating too much new business. That is a bad reason to fire someone, but the employee can't sue the employer for running a business poorly. There is a caveat to this rule for employers, though. The reason for firing an employee can be bad, stupid, or even non-existent. It cannot be an illegal reason.
So, what are these illegal reasons? The answer to that question depends on both which state you are in and exactly who your employer is. Both state and federal laws prohibit firing based on certain reasons. These largely fit into two classes: protected characteristics and protected activities.
Protected characteristics are mostly things about individuals that cannot be changed. These include race, gender, national origin, disability, and color. Also included in this category are religion and familiar status (to some extent). These are technically things that the individual could change (known as "mutable characteristics" in legal terms), but they are things the employee shouldn't be required to change.
Protected activities are actions that the law encourages or otherwise protects. These include using work comp, using FMLA leave, participating in union activity, attending jury duty, and reporting or refusing to undertake illegal activities, commonly referred to as "whistle-blowing." These claims are commonly referred to as various types of retaliation. This is because they are undertaken in reaction to an employee engaging in some legal right; because you did this, I'm going to express my anger by doing this.
This may seem like a random division of what the law protects and what it disregards. There is a fair amount of truth to that: these things are quite random. However, the general explanation is that laws only exist to control employer's ability to fire when the government's interest become negatively impacted by these firings.
A strong example of this comes with race discrimination. For a long period of time, non-white employees were heavily discriminated against. This led to an inability to get employment of any type, and thus, dependence on the state for basic support. At that point, both the states and Congress were compelled to take action by prohibiting this type of discrimination.
Protected activities are generally "self-protecting," meaning that the laws themselves have enforcement mechanisms to prevent discrimination. Examples of this include Missouri's workers' compensation law, FLMA, and the National Labor Relations Act (for union activity). The state wants these activities to be undertaken, so it will not allow employers to "chill" those activities by firing anyone who participates. However, sometimes these activities are protected by virtual of the courts, via what is called "common law." In Kansas, for example, the work comp law does not directly prohibit retaliation, but an employer can still be sued for wrongful discharge because allowing retaliation would be against "public policy."
Because the facts of each case determine if a discharge is wrongful, we always offer free, confidential consultations. Just fill out the form below or call either number!
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