What Does It Actually Mean To Be “Wrongfully Terminated” In New Jersey?

Legal recourse for wrongful termination

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 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 and conduct are the keys to successful claims for unlawful termination

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:

  • 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”. This 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. 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”.

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.

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