Unlawful Terminations | Know Your Rights Staff Profile Picture
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Unlawful termination, also known as wrongful dismissal, occurs when an employer terminates an employee violating their legal rights. This violation can take many forms, including discrimination, retaliation, breach of contract, violation of public policy, or whistleblowing. Unfortunately, wrongful dismissals happen frequently in the United States, with many employees suffering from unfair treatment and the resulting financial and emotional damage.

According to recent statistics, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received over 61,000 charges of workplace discrimination in 2021, with relation being the most frequently cited reason. The National Employment Lawyers Association also reports that retaliation claims comprise approximately 50% of all employment-related lawsuits filed in the United States. Furthermore, breach of contract and violation of public policy claims are also rising, with employees seeking legal remedies to protect their rights and recover damages. 

This article will discuss the various forms of unlawful termination and provide employees with information about their legal rights, what employees can do if they suspect they have been wrongfully dismissed, and the steps they can take to recover damages.

What Is Considered Wrongful Dismissal?

Wrongful dismissal or unlawful termination can happen in various situations. Employers may terminate employees violating their legal rights, including discrimination, retaliation, breach of contract, and whistleblowing. This list will provide more details about each situation and what employees can do to recover damages.


Discrimination can sometimes result in unlawful termination when an employee is fired or forced to resign due to race, gender, religion, age, disability, or another protected characteristic. Employees who believe they have been unlawfully terminated due to discrimination must first file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination. In addition, the EEOC will investigate the complaint and may file a lawsuit against the employer on the employee's behalf.


Unlawful termination because of retaliation occurs when an employer fires or takes other adverse action against an employee in response to the employee exercising their legal rights or participation in protected activity. Examples may include:

  • Firing an employee for reporting harassment.

  • Demoting an employee for filing a complaint about unsafe working conditions.

  • Reducing an employee's pay for filing a workers' compensation claim.

To report a case of wrongful dismissal by retaliation, the employee can file a complaint with the appropriate government agency, such as the EEOC or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The agency will examine the complaint and could take legal action against the employer in support of the employee.

Breach of Contract

Wrongful termination by breach of contract occurs when an employer terminates an employee violating the terms of an employment contract. Some common examples of this situation may include failure to pay agreed-upon wages or benefits, changing the agreement terms without the employee's consent, or failure to provide a safe working environment.

If an employee believes they have been unlawfully terminated due to breach of contract, they should carefully review their employment contract to determine if the termination violates the agreement terms. In addition, the employee should document any instances of the breach, such as missed payments or failure to provide promised benefits. The employee may be able to file a lawsuit for damages but should first consult with an experienced employment attorney to assess their legal options.

Violation of Public Policy

Violation of public policy can also result in unlawful termination, which occurs when an employer terminates an employee in violation of a fundamental public policy. This can include termination based on discrimination or retaliation against the employee for engaging in protected activities, such as filing a worker’s compensation claim or serving on a jury. Some additional examples of situations that may constitute a violation of public policy can include filing a discrimination claim, joining a union, or refusing to participate in illegal activities, such as insider trading or price-fixing.

To report unlawful termination by violation of public policy, the employee should first document any instances of discrimination or retaliation if it applies to their case. They should also note any evidence supporting their claim that the termination violated public policy. The employee can then file a complaint with the appropriate government agency, such as the EEOC, if they believe the employer violated a public policy protected by law.


Whistleblowing is reporting illegal or unethical behavior by an employer, such as fraud or safety violations, to the appropriate authorities. It is protected by law, and an employer is prohibited from terminating an employee for this protected activity. Therefore, employees terminated for whistleblowing should first consult with an employment law attorney. The attorney can help the employee understand their rights, assess the strength of their case, and determine appropriate legal remedies. 

Additionally, the employee should gather and document evidence of their whistleblowing, including any communications or reports they made and the responses they received from their employer. Employees can also file a complaint with OSHA or the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) if they believe their employer has retaliated against them for whistleblowing.

Can You Sue Your Employer for Unlawful Termination?

Yes, you can sue an employer for unlawful termination. However, before filing a lawsuit, you may need to file a claim with the relevant agency, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the state labor department, depending on the type of discrimination involved. You may file a court lawsuit if the agency does not resolve your claim. If you have hired an employment lawyer, they can help you prepare and file the necessary legal documents with the court.

Once the lawsuit is filed, the case will enter the discovery phase, where both parties exchange information and any related evidence. At any point in the litigation process, the parties may negotiate a settlement to resolve the case outside of court. If the trial is not settled, it will proceed to trial. At trial, both parties will present their arguments and evidence, and a judge or jury will make a decision. If either party is dissatisfied with the trial's outcome, they may appeal the decision to a higher court.

How Much Money Can You Get from a Wrongful Dismissal Lawsuit?

The amount of money you can get from a wrongful dismissal suit can vary depending on the specific circumstances of your case, including the length of your employment, the reason for your termination, and the damages you have suffered due to your termination. 

Damages in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit can include the following:

  • Lost wages and benefits: Includes the salary and benefits you would have earned if you had not been wrongfully terminated.

  • Emotional distress: You may be able to recover damages for emotional distress caused by the wrongful termination, such as anxiety, depression, or humiliation.

  • Punitive damages: In some cases, the court may award punitive damages to punish the employer for particularly egregious behavior.

While the amount can vary, it is not uncommon for damages to range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. For example, a security company in New York settled a disability discrimination case in 2020 for $15,000. On the other hand, Netflix paid $12 million to settle a wrongful termination lawsuit in 2021. Your lawyer can advise you on the potential damages you may be able to recover based on the specifics of your case.

How Long Does It Take to Resolve a Wrongful Termination Lawsuit?

In general, the process of resolving a wrongful termination lawsuit can take anywhere from several months to several years. Some cases may be resolved quickly if the parties can reach a settlement early in the process. However, if the case goes to trial, it can take significantly longer to resolve.

Before a trial, both parties will engage in a discovery process, exchanging information and evidence related to the case. This process can be time-consuming, involving depositions, document requests, and other legal procedures. The court's schedule can also affect the trial length, as they often have busy dockets, and it may take some time before your case can be heard. 

Both sides will present evidence and arguments during a trial, and the court will hear witness testimony. This process can be laborious, especially if the case is complex or involves many witnesses. Lastly, if a jury hears the case, the jury will need to deliberate and reach a verdict. Depending on the case's specific circumstances, this can take several hours or days.

Legal Resources for Employees

If you are an employee who has experienced a labor law violation, there are several legal resources available to help you understand your rights, seek legal assistance, and file complaints against your employer. Here are some of the top legal resources available to employees who have experienced labor law violations or are involved in a lawsuit.

National Employment Law Project

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) is a non-profit research and advocacy organization that focuses on employment and labor law issues. The organization was founded in 1969 and is based in New York City. Still, it works nationally to promote policies and practices that support low-wage workers, immigrants, and other marginalized groups. For example, the organization has been instrumental in advocating for minimum wage increases, paid sick leave policies, and other worker-friendly initiatives at the local, state, and federal levels. In addition to policy work, NELP provides direct legal representation and advocacy to workers who have experienced workplace violations, including wrongful termination. 

State Labor Agencies

State labor agencies enforce labor laws and protect workers' rights within a particular state. In addition, these agencies typically investigate complaints of labor law violations, enforce workplace safety standards, and administer unemployment insurance benefits. 

Employees who believe their employer has violated their rights under state labor laws can file a complaint with the state labor agency. The specific process for filing a complaint can vary by state, but it usually involves submitting a written complaint or filling out an online form. Once the complaint is filed, the agency will investigate the matter and may take enforcement action against the employer if a violation is found. 

To find your state’s labor agency, you can search online by typing in the name of your state followed by “labor agency” or “department of labor.”

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is an agency that is responsible for enforcing federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. In addition, the EEOC investigates discrimination charges filed against employers and seeks to remedy any unlawful practices through litigation or settlement. 

If you believe you have been discriminated against in the workplace, you can file a charge with EEOC. The charge must be filed within 180 days of the alleged discrimination. The EEOC will investigate the claim to determine if there is reasonable cause to believe that discrimination has occurred. If the EEOC finds evidence of discrimination, they may file a lawsuit against the employer or seek to resolve the matter through settlement or mediation.

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