Last updated March 29, 2017.
Part of my employment law practice involves giving free consultations to workers who call my office or contact me over the internet. Many, many of these workers report being “wrongfully terminated” from their positions in New Jersey and ask what legal recourse is available to them.
These workers sometimes complain that they were fired for various “unfair” reasons, such as:
- My manager “just didn’t like me” and “had it in for me”
- I had an argument with a co-worker. It was his fault, but the blame was pinned on me and I got canned.
- My boss said I “wasn’t meeting expectations,” but he didn’t give me the proper training, equipment, sales territory, etc. to succeed — so of course he fired me.
From a life perspective, losing your job under these circumstances can indeed be unfair. Unfortunately, from a legal perspective, these circumstances usually do not qualify as “wrongful termination.”
Protected classes, conduct keys to successful wrongful termination claims
Instead, “wrongful termination” only occurs when an employer fires a worker due to his or her membership in a protected class, or for engaging in protected conduct, under New Jersey or federal law. Laws such as the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act spell out very clearly what qualifies as a protected class or conduct for purposes of legally safeguarding your job.
For instance, protected classes include, but are not limited to:
Protected conduct includes, but is not limited to:
- Military service
- Reporting or complaining of discrimination to management
- Reporting or complaining of what you reasonably and in good faith believe to be fraud, illegality, or a violation of public policy by management. Such complaints can be made internally to management or externally, such as to an outside regulatory authority (like the FDA). Please note, however, that complaining of acts that solely violate internal company policies and procedures is generally not protected.
If you are fired for either your protected class or conduct, then your discharge is absolutely “wrongful” and you have a potential cause of action (for instance, a discrimination lawsuit). However, if your termination had nothing whatsoever to do with your protected class or conduct, then it is probably lawful — even if it strikes you as unfair and arbitrary.
What type of employee are you?
The very hard truth is that, if you don’t have an employment contract that specifically protects your job, you are what is called an “at-will employee.” The U.S. is one of a handful of countries that is predominantly at-will — all states have these employment relationships except for Montana. “At-will” means that you work at your employer’s will and behest. It also means that you may be legally terminated at any time and for any reason whatsoever, even for the simple fact that:
- You have a personality conflict with your co-workers;
- You were late and forgot to call in just one time; or
- Your boss is a jerk.
As such, it’s important to understand that, when it comes to your job, the balance of power tilts decidedly in favor of your employer. At-will does mean that you, as an employee, also are allowed to leave a job at any time for any, or no, reason without incurring legal consequences. But an employer also can change the terms of an employment relationship with no notice or consequences, including altering wages, terminating benefits, or reducing paid time off.
There are lines, however, that employers can’t cross. Employment laws exist to prevent employers from engaging in invidious discrimination against individuals based upon their “protected status.”
Exceptions to at-will employment presumptions
There are a few exceptions to the at-will presumption, which of course can be modified by contract. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, common law exceptions include the following:
Public policy — This protects employees against adverse employment actions that violate a public interest. However, this can be construed pretty broadly or narrowly by state. The categories within the public policy exception are: refusing to perform an act that state law prohibits; reporting a violation of the law; engaging in acts that are in the public interest (such as jury duty); and exercising a statutory right (such as filing a claim under New Jersey’s workers’ compensation law).
Implied contract — This is difficult for a plaintiff to prove, but can include language in employee handbooks or a verbal assurance by a supervisor, such as “We don’t dismiss employees without giving them a chance to correct their behavior.”
Implied covenant of good faith — Not many states recognize implied covenant of good faith, including New Jersey, but bad-faith terminations can include an employer firing an older employee to avoid paying retirement benefits or firing a salesperson just before their large commission is made payable.
There also are statutory exceptions to the at-will provision, which vary by state. In New Jersey and a few other states, for example, an employer can’t discriminate against you for being a smoker.
How to sue for wrongful termination in NJ
If you are uncertain whether or not you have a claim for “wrongful termination,” employment attorneys at Zatuchni & Associates have extensive experience with wrongful discharge cases and can help you determine if you have been terminated unfairly. Contact us online or call us at 609-243-0300 today for a free consultation.