Wrongful termination occurs where an employee is discharged for unlawful reasons, which can include discrimination based on a protected class or retaliation. Employees who suffer a wrongful termination may bring a claim under both state and federal law. The Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Act applies to companies with at least six employees and prohibits such employers from discriminating based on age; race, color, and national origin; religious creed; handicap; as well as sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
Wrongful termination cases are typically built on circumstantial evidence. As the Supreme Court in Furnco Construction v. Waters made clear, discriminatory animus can be inferred by closely evaluating an employer’s stated reasons for an employment decision and demonstrating a lack of credibility:
Wrongful Termination Based on Protected Class
[W]e know from our experience that more often than not people do not act in a totally arbitrary manner, without any underlying reasons, especially in a business setting. Thus, when all legitimate reasons for rejecting an applicant have been eliminated as possible reasons for the employer’s actions, it is more likely than not the employer, who we generally assume acts only with some reason, based his decision on an impermissible consideration such as race.
Different statutes under federal law provide similar forms of protection for employees. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), for example, prohibits age discrimination and applies to companies with at least twenty employees. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits disability discrimination and applies to companies with at least fifteen employees. And finally, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, and sex. Title VII applies to companies with at least fifteen employees and has been interpreted to also prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Under both Massachusetts and federal law, employees must be at least 40 years old to bring a claim for age discrimination. In addition, under Title VII and the Fair Employment Practices Act, gender discrimination includes sexual harassment.Wrongful Termination As a Form of Retaliation
Employees covered under these statutes are also protected from retaliation. Under state and federal law, employers can not terminate employees who engage in protected activities like requesting handicap or religious accommodations; speaking out against sexual harassment; and expressing concerns about age bias, pregnancy discrimination, and other forms of unlawful treatment. The anti-retaliation provisions also protect employees who oppose unlawful conduct against others, even if the employee herself was not the target of the discriminatory treatment. With this type of wrongful termination claim, establishing a causal connection between the protected activity and the discharge is pivotal to establishing liability on the employer’s part.
Overall, as the United States Supreme Court recognized in Complete Auto Transit v. Reis, discharge is “the industrial equivalent of capital punishment.” A wrongful termination has the potential to derail an employee’s career and result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial loss. The stakes are high. Finding the right attorney who will carefully gather evidence to successfully prove such a claim is a vital first step in making oneself whole again.Wrongful Termination: Learn More