This frequently comes as a surprise to many people, but employers have no legal obligation to treat employees the same. An employee that makes a mistake costing the employer substantial loss may be fired while another employee that makes the same mistake might get promoted. These are decisions that are made in the business judgment of the employer. It is only in a very narrow set of cases that being fired is actionable under North Carolina or federal law.
What do North Carolina and federal law protect me from?
Federal and North Carolina law protect you from being fired on the basis of certain legally protected characteristics, such as:
- Religion or creed
- National origin or ancestry
- Sex, including pregnancy
- Physical or mental disability
- Veteran status
- Genetic information
The law also protects you from being fired if there was a violation of your employment contract (for example, if you have a “for-cause employment” provision in an employment contract). These laws also make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for asserting your rights. For example, if you complain to your company’s HR department that you believe you were passed over for promotion because of your age, your employer may not discipline or fire you for your complaint. If you are fired for complaining of discrimination, participating in an investigation of a discrimination complaint (whether you or another employee made the complaint), or testifying in court, you have a retaliation claim against your former employer.
I am a member of a protected class and I was fired because of it, what should I do?
You should seek the advice of an experienced employment law attorney. An attorney will be able to assess your claim and let you know if you have any legal remedies for what happened to you. For most discrimination claims, the process begins with a complaint filed before the EEOC or its state or local equivalent. This step, called the exhaustion of administrative remedies, is required before the claimant can file a lawsuit in court.
The general rule for most claims is that the end of the administrative process culminates in the issuance of a right-to-sue letter and lawsuits must be filed in court within 90 days of the claimant’s receipt of the right to sue letter. Claims may be settled at any time or resolved at the administrative level, but some proceed to court.
Did my employer breach my employment contract by firing me?
If you have an employment contract promising you job security, you may not be an at-will employee. If, for example, you signed a written employment agreement stating that you could be fired only for good cause, you do not work at will. If your employer fired you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract. If you suspect that your former employer may have violated your employment contract by firing you, you should contact an employment law attorney that can evaluate your claim.