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How to sue for wrongful termination in an at will state like New York or New Jersey?

September 12, 2019


By Charles Joseph

 

Can you sue for wrongful termination in an at will state? If you’ve been fired, you may wonder whether you can file a lawsuit. In this blog post, I’ll explain how to sue for wrongful termination, even if you live in an at will state such as New York or New Jersey.

What’s an at will state? In “at will employment” states, employers can fire employees without demonstrating a “just cause.” That means you can be fired for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. 

However, even in at will states, employers cannot fire you for illegal reasons. If you’ve been fired for an illegal reason, you can sue for wrongful termination.

Let’s start with the legal definition of wrongful termination. First, employees only have a claim for wrongful termination if they’ve been fired for an illegal reason. Many assume that in an at will state, where employers can fire employees without just cause, it’s not possible to sue for wrongful termination. However, even in at will states, employers must follow employment laws. These laws offer protections from discrimination and retaliation. 

In practice, that means your employer cannot fire you for any illegal reason. Take, for example, workplace discrimination laws. You can’t be fired because of your race, gender, religion, disability status, age, or any other protected category. That means if your company let you go because you’re close to retirement age, you may have a wrongful termination case under age discrimination laws. Similarly, if you were fired because you got pregnant, you have protections under pregnancy discrimination laws

Many state laws, including in New York and New Jersey, provide even stronger workplace discrimination protections. For example, New York laws protect employees from firing because of their caregiver status or marital status. State laws also protect employees from wrongful termination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In addition to discriminatory firings, employers cannot fire someone as a form of retaliation. For example, if you recently took leave under FMLA or NYSPFL, your employer cannot fire you for using your leave after you return to work. Similarly, employers cannot fire someone for requesting parental leave or medical leave.

Retaliation protections also cover employees who complain about discrimination or harassment. Take, for instance, an employee who files a complaint with HR about sexual harassment. A week later, her company fires her. Retaliation laws protect her from wrongful termination, meaning she can file a lawsuit against her employer. 

These retaliation protections also cover employees who complain about wage theft, act as a whistleblower in certain circumstances, or complain about being denied medical leave.

Many employees incorrectly assume that you can’t sue for wrongful termination in an at will state. However, if you’ve faced termination for an illegal reason, including discrimination or retaliation, you may have a lawsuit.

The statute of limitation varies on wrongful termination protections. In some instances, for example, the statute of limitations may be as short as 30 days, depending on the type of case. As a result, it’s critical to reach out to an employment lawyer as soon as possible. Most employment lawyers offer a free consultation to discuss your wrongful termination lawsuit. 

For more information, visit our FAQ on wrongful termination.

 

Charles Joseph has over two decades of experience in employment law and wrongful termination. He is the founder of Working Now and Then and the founding partner of Joseph and Kirschenbaum, a firm that has recovered over $120 million for clients.