Have you ever been fired from your job for a reason that seemed unfair, unjust, or even illegal?
Wrongful termination can have serious consequences for both the employee and the employer, such as loss of income, emotional distress, reputational damage, and legal liability.
It’s a common and complex issue in the employment law field, especially in a large and diverse city like Chicago, where there are millions of workers and employers in various industries and sectors. Chicago is also home to many state and federal agencies that regulate and enforce employment laws, such as the Illinois Department of Labor, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the National Labor Relations Board. These agencies can play a vital role in resolving wrongful termination disputes and protecting the rights of workers and employers.
Understanding Wrongful Termination: Legal Definition and Scope
Wrongful termination is different from at-will employment, which is the default rule in Illinois and most other states. At-will employment means that either the employer or the employee can end the employment relationship at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all, as long as the reason is not illegal.
However, there are several exceptions to the at-will employment rule:
- Discrimination: An employer cannot fire an employee based on their color, sex, age, religion, national origin, disability, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other protected characteristic under federal, state, or local laws.
- Retaliation: An employer can’t fire an employee for engaging in certain protected activities, like reporting or opposing illegal or unethical conduct by the employer, filing a complaint or a lawsuit against the employer, participating in an investigation or a proceeding against the employer, or exercising their rights under employment laws, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, or the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
- Violation of employment contract: An employer cannot fire an employee in breach of an express or implied employment contract that provides the employee with job security or specifies the grounds and procedures for termination. An employment contract can be written, oral, or implied by the employer’s policies, practices, or statements.
- Violation of public policy: An employer cannot fire an employee for a reason that contravenes a clear and well-established public policy, such as refusing to commit an illegal act, performing a civic duty, or asserting a legal right.
In Chicago, wrongful termination claims can be based on various grounds, depending on the facts and circumstances of each case, including the above. But there are some specifics here in our backyard.
- Discrimination: Chicago has a strong anti-discrimination ordinance that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their race, color, sex, age, religion, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, parental status, military discharge status, source of income, or any other status protected by law. Employees who believe they have been discriminated against can file a complaint with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations.
- Retaliation: Chicago has a strong anti-retaliation ordinance. The experts are the allies, ensuring a safe and successful workplace. Employees who believe they have been retaliated against can file a complaint with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations or a lawsuit in court, following the same procedures as for discrimination claims.
- Violation of employment contract: Chicago employees who have an employment contract that limits the employer’s right to fire them can sue the employer for breach of contract if they are terminated for a reason that violates the contract. The employee can seek damages for the losses suffered as a result of the breach, such as lost wages, benefits, and emotional distress. The employee can also seek specific performance, which is a court order that requires the employer to reinstate the employee or fulfill the contract terms.
- Violation of public policy: Chicago employees who have been fired for a reason that violates a clear and well-established public policy can sue the employer for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. This is a common law claim that is recognized by the Illinois courts as an exception to the at-will employment rule. The employee can seek damages for the losses suffered as a result of the termination, as well as punitive damages, which are meant to punish the employer and make sure that there’s no future misconduct.
Legal Process and Remedies for Wrongful Termination
In Chicago, this depends, based on the location and scenario.
Generally, there are two main options for employees: filing a complaint with an administrative agency or filing a lawsuit in court.
Filing a complaint with an administrative agency: Many wrongful termination claims, especially those based on discrimination or retaliation, are subject to the jurisdiction of an administrative agency, such as the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, the Illinois Department of Human Rights, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or the National Labor Relations Board. Employees who want to file a complaint with an administrative agency must follow the rules and procedures of the agency, such as the time limit, the format, the content, and the evidence required for the complaint. The agency will then investigate the complaint, attempt to mediate or conciliate the dispute, or issue a finding and order.
Filing a lawsuit in court: Some wrongful termination claims, especially those based on breach of contract or violation of public policy can be filed directly in court. Other wrongful termination claims, such as those based on discrimination or retaliation, can also be filed in court if that becomes a second option. Employees who want to file a lawsuit in court must follow the rules and procedures of the court, such as the statute of limitations, the venue, the pleadings, the discovery, and the trial. The court will then hear the case and decide whether the employer has wrongfully terminated the employee or not. If the court finds that the employer has wrongfully terminated the employee, it can award the employee various legal remedies, such as:
- Compensatory damages: These are damages that are meant to compensate the employee for the actual losses suffered as a result of the wrongful termination, such as lost wages, benefits, medical expenses, and emotional distress.
- Punitive damages: These are damages that are meant to punish the employer and deter future misconduct, especially if the employer acted with malice, fraud, or oppression.
- Equitable relief: This is a type of relief that is not monetary, but instead requires the employer to do or refrain from doing something, such as reinstating the employee, providing an injunction, or issuing a declaratory judgment.
Preventive Measures for Employers and Employees
Wrongful termination is a serious and complex issue that can affect both employers and employees in Chicago.
So, it’s important for employers and employees to take preventive measures to avoid wrongful termination scenarios and protect their rights. Here are some recommendations from The Crone Law Firm:
- Do the homework upfront with both new and existing employees. Review and update your employment policies and procedures to ensure compliance with federal, state, and local laws and regulations.
- Provide regular training and education to your managers and supervisors on how to handle employment issues, such as performance evaluation, discipline, termination, and documentation.
- Communicate clearly and respectfully with your employees about their job expectations, feedback, and concerns.
- Document and justify any employment decisions, especially those involving termination, with objective and factual evidence.
- Seek legal advice from an experienced employment lawyer before taking any adverse action against an employee, especially if the employee has a contract, belongs to a protected class, or has engaged in a protected activity.
- Know and understand your rights and responsibilities under federal, state, and local laws and regulations.
- Read and follow your employment contract, handbook, and policies, if any, and keep copies of them for your reference.
- Report and document any incidents of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation that you experience or witness in your workplace.
- Cooperate and participate in any investigation, hearing, or proceeding related to your employment issue, and seek legal representation if necessary.
- Consult with an experienced employment lawyer if you believe you have been wrongfully terminated or are facing a potential wrongful termination.
If you have any questions or need any assistance with your wrongful termination case, please feel free to contact us at Crone Law Firm. We have a team of skilled and experienced employment and contract lawyers who can help you with your legal needs. We offer a free initial consultation and work on a contingency fee basis, which means you don’t pay us anything unless we recover compensation for you. We look forward to hearing from you and helping you with your wrongful termination case.