Righting a Wrongful Termination
The vast majority of workers in New Jersey are considered at-will employees, who can be dismissed at the discretion of their employer without warning. Although the termination may feel unfair, it is often completely legal. Exceptions do exist, however. Employees who are members of a protected class or who engage in protected conduct cannot be fired on the basis of those attributes and actions. Employers who violate these rules can be held accountable for a wrongful termination.
State and Federal Laws Safeguard Certain Employees from Wrongful Discharge
The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) firmly establishes that an employee cannot be fired because of his or her race, age, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or pregnancy. Employers who disregard the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination face statutory penalties which increase with each successive violation, up to $50,000 for a three-time offender. Conversely, employees who prevail on a claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination are entitled to reinstatement to their previous position, back pay, damages for pain and humiliation, reimbursement for the loss of fringe benefits, and restoration of health and pension benefits.
Protection From Retaliation
Employees who voice concerns about unsafe work conditions or object to illegal business practices also cannot be fired on the basis of those complaints. Known as whistleblowers, these workers are shielded from wrongful discharge by the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA). Federal laws, such as the False Claims Act, can also be implicated when the complained-of conduct involves the defrauding of a federal program like Medicaid or Medicare. Employees who shed light on wrongdoing by their employer are protected under state and federal law, and can receive reinstatement to their position, back pay and in some cases a portion of whatever funds government officials recoup from the offending employer.
Fighting Wrongful Termination with a Breach of Contract Action
Another exception to at-will employment is the existence of an employment contract which sets forth acceptable grounds for termination, as well as procedures and protocols to be followed by an employer when termination of employment will be sought. Workers should familiarize themselves with the terms of their employment contract. Importantly, a contract need not always be put into writing in order to be considered valid in court. An oral contract can consist of a verbal promise by an employer to retain an employee for a certain period of time, or to terminate only for specific reasons. Additionally, the existence of a contract can be implied by an employer and used as evidence in the event of a wrongful termination.
When an employee is terminated, wrongfully or otherwise, it is imperative that they question the circumstances surrounding their dismissal. A supervisor or manager should provide a detailed explanation for the termination as well as evidence which supports their decision. If an employee suspects that they have been fired because of their membership in a protected class, their participation in a protected activity, or in violation of the terms of a valid employment contract, a wrongful termination civil lawsuit can provide relief.