Wrongful Termination in New Jersey: What Does It Actually Mean?

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:

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.

3 Responses to “Wrongful Termination in New Jersey: What Does It Actually Mean?”

  1. Dralan Alex

    In September 2016 I was spoken to by my district manager in reference to an employee that I terminated, which she was bent on firing due to his past documented performance..the last infraction was when the district manager visited the store unannounced and saw the store was not open on time…she waited until he got there to open the store..30 minutes after opening she entered the store and saw him listening to music on his phone .the employee was already on a final write up. I sat the employee down later that week per my district manager instruction and delivered his termination..as he signed it he received a call say his grandmother was ill..i told him to take care of his personal matter and I would notify the district manager to see if this would be an official termination and get approval or not from hr…later that day the employee called and stated he would be submitting his letter of resignation. Once i received the letter via email i informed my district manager…I then sent the termination document and all past writeups along with his letter of resignation to hr…later the employee filed unemployment and was found eligible..My district manager was very upset and stated to me..despite completing his termination paperwork and him signing it I should have thrown it away and just submitted his letter of resignation to avoid having to pay unemployment…I told here that the statement she made was unethical and illegal. I told her I was going to contact HR to find out if I followed the correct process,and ask if her statement was ethical. She then stated that there was a customer complaint about a guess trying to do a return at me store and 1 of my team members or 1 of my managers said they couldn’t do it because the system was down..she stated this was a reflection of me and she was going to contact hr..to find out if she could put me on a final writeup for these infractions…I contacted the ethics hotline after our conversation. 3 months passed and she gave me a termination letter with the infractions she spoke to me about in September. Stating i caused the company to lose money by having to pay and former employe unemployment. In my termination letter she stated that I should have terminated the an employe based on this resignation letter not performance and also 3 customer complaint that don’t name me but my team manager or associates..she also stated that I did not inform her of another associate that put in his 2 week notice but left while i was on vacation prior to his 2 weeks. 1 week prior to my termination the company announced several stores would be closing and employees would be laid off..Ironically my districts manager’s last day was January 6th the day she terminated me..she was laid off..My store wasn’t 1 of the store to close but 1 of her good friends who was a Store manager his store was closing and now he in charge of of my old store. I never received any written notice of an infraction only the verbal in September and she never in formed me of the feedback from hr in September..I feel I was discriminated against because her friend now has my job and she was aware his store was closing I also feel I was retaliated against because of the unemployment issues. I have every email of the stores system being down in reference to customers complaints of not being able to do return due to the system being down..I have every email in reference to the employee termination that was paid unemployment..I have the email congratulating her friend on his relocation after his store closes to my former store..

    Reply
  2. Samuel Tait

    After submitting a grievance on the director, a week later she wrote up a false document to terminate me from my duties.

    Reply

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