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Wrongful Termination

This page addresses the following topics:

1. Unlawful dismissals

2. Fired: Blowing the whistle on my employer

1. Unlawful dismissals

Each state has different laws regulating the employment relationship. No two states have exactly the same laws. However, most states have statutes created by state legislatures prohibiting discriminatory discharge based on race, religion, sex, national origin, age, and disability. In addition, most states have specific statutes prohibiting certain kinds of discrimination not covered by federal law, for example, with respect to sexual orientation or marital status. For further information about discrimination laws, see our site’s discrimination section.

2. Fired: Blowing the whistle on my employer

Most states prohibit an employer from discharging an employee for a reason that violate the “public policy” of the state as represented by state law, constitution, or otherwise. For example, most states have laws prohibiting dumping toxic waste into lakes and streams. An employee learns that his employer has been dumping waste in violation of the law. The employee informs his supervisor about the problem, but his supervisor tells him to mind his own business. The agency, and the employer is fined a large amount of money. When the company learns that the employee told the state agency about the dumping, the employee is fired. Permitting an employer to terminate an employee for such a reason would undermine the policy of the state against dumping toxic waste, since other employees would be afraid to report their employers’ wrongdoing if they knew that the employer could legally fire them for doing so.

States vary widely in their recognition of the right of an employee to bring a lawsuit against an employer when the employee is terminated in violation of a state public policy. The past decade has seen a growing number of courts willing to accept the idea that an employee should not be terminated for doing something that advances the policy of the state or when the termination would otherwise undermine the state’s policy. Commonly recognized public policy claims include refusing to commit a crime or refusing to commit perjury, exercising a civic right or duty such as jury duty or filing a workers’ compensation claim, or reporting a crime to public officials. Because of the varying interpretations this type of claim, you should seek the advice of an attorney to find out your state’s laws.

Many federal laws provide protections for employees who help enforce those laws. The time limit to file a claim of retaliation will depend on the law that you helped to enforce. For example, if you file a charge of discrimination, and you suffer retaliation, then you have a new case you can file under that same law, Title VII. The time limit to file the retaliation complaint is the same as for other discrimination claims under Title VII (180 days, unless your state has a deferral agency, in which case the time limit is 300 days). For more information about retaliation claims under Title VII, see our site’s page on retaliation.

Seven major federal environmental laws (Clean Air, Toxic Substances, Clean Water, Atomic Energy, Solid Waste, Safe Drinking Water and Superfund) have special provisions protecting employee whistleblowers. The basic idea behind the employee protections of the federal environmental laws is that people who help enforce the laws should not suffer retaliation as a result. The laws protect not only calling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or other enforcement authorities, but also refusing to follow illegal orders, objecting to supervisors about violations, and associating with those who blow the whistle. When used, these laws have been effective in protecting employees who expose public health and safety violations. Congress has used similar procedures to protect truck drivers, airline workers, and corporate fraud whistleblowers. Any of them who take a stand for the law and suffer retaliation should consider whether to file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The time limit to get your environmental whistleblower complaint to OSHA is thirty (30) calendar days from the date you first learned about management’s final decision to impose the adverse action. Nuclear whistleblowers (with complaints against licensees of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or their subcontractors) and truck drivers (or anyone with a complaint under the Surface Transportation Assistance Act) have 180 days to file their complaints. Whistleblowers about airline safety and corporate fraud have 90 days to file their complaints. For more information, see our site’s environmental whistleblower page.

This is a selection from Job Rights and Survival Strategies by Paul H. Tobias and Susan Sauter.