If you’re like most people who lose their jobs, you probably feel that your termination was wrongful and unfair. Employment laws in North Carolina, though, allow employers to fire employees for a variety of reasons, and in some cases for no reason at all. To be able to sue for wrongful termination, you’ll need to show that your termination violated a specific law or the terms of a contract, not just that it was unfair.
At-Will Employment and Wrongful Termination in North Carolina
North Carolina is an at-will employment state, which means that employers have significant discretion to fire employees. Unless your termination violates a specific law or goes against the terms of your contract, your employer can fire you for any reason at all – including reasons that seem ridiculous or unfair. Likewise, North Carolina allows your employer to fire you without warning and without first giving you a chance to correct the problem.
What Constitutes Wrongful Termination in North Carolina?
First, check the terms of your employment contract. If your contract outlaws specific circumstances under which you cannot be fired, requires your employer to follow a specific procedure prior to terminating you, or mandates that you be given warning before being fired, then your contract trumps the law. An employer who ignores the terms of your contract has wrongly terminated you and breached your contract. If you don’t have an employment contract or your employer did not breach any of the terms of your contract, you can only sue for wrongful discharge if the employer broke state or federal law in firing you.
Federal law prohibits North Carolina employers from firing employees for discriminatory reasons; these cases account for the majority of wrongful termination suits. Not all cases that appear discriminatory are legally considered discrimination, though. Federal law, for example, doesn’t currently protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender expression, for example. Instead, federal law prohibits the following types of discrimination:
- Age (protection only for workers over the age of 40)
- disability or injury rating
- Sex (including sexual harassment)
- Ethnicity or national origin
- Race or skin color
- Genetic information
North Carolina state law offers a few additional protections, prohibiting employers from firing employees on the basis of:
- HIV/AIDs status
- Military service
- Use of lawful products when you’re not at work (such as use of a prescribed medication)
- Sickle cell anemia or hemoglobin C
If you work for a private company, North Carolina and federal law require that your employer must have at least 15 employees for anti-discrimination laws to kick in. If you work for the federal government, though, you’re protected no matter how few people your employer hires.
What types of behavior constitute discrimination?
Discrimination isn’t always clear-cut. In addition to prohibiting outright discriminatory firing, the law also requires that employers make “reasonable accommodations” to enable employees with disabilities to do their jobs. Failure to do so is a form of disability discrimination.
Discrimination runs the gamut from the overt to the subtle, and your boss doesn’t have to tell you he dislikes you because of your group membership for his behavior to be discriminatory. A few examples of other types of discrimination include:
- Treating you differently because of your minority status.
- Making inappropriate and discriminatory jokes about a group you are a member of.
- Paying minorities less than other employees.
- Refusing to give minority employees a second chance when other employees have received such opportunities.
- Not hiring minorities, or firing minorities for no clear reason other than their minority status.
- Creating a hostile work environment by engaging in sexual harassment.
In addition to prohibiting discrimination, the law penalizes employers for engaging in retaliation. Retaliation is when your employer makes an adverse employment decision because you file a lawsuit, act as a whistleblower, or report illegal activities to a government agency or oversight board. For example, if you file a discrimination lawsuit while you’re still employed and your boss fires you for it, she has engaged in illegal retaliation. Retaliation is a form of wrongful termination in its own right, but it’s typically accompanied by other forms of unlawful behavior, such as discrimination.
Exercising Other Legal Rights
It’s illegal to fire employees for exercising some other rights. In North Carolina, for example, you certain rights pertaining to wage and hour issues. You have the right to the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. If you work for tips, your employer may pay you as little as $2.13 per hour as long as you make at least minimum wage with your tips. You don’t have the right to meal or rest breaks, but federal law does protect your right to be paid for breaks shorter than 20 minutes. You also have the right to be paid for any time you’re working, even if your employer considers that time a “break.”
You also have the right under federal law to take certain amounts of time off work for family and medical leave, jury duty, and military leave. Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), you’re entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid time every year to handle your own serious health condition, a family member’s serious health condition, or to care for a new child. You’re also entitled to up to 26 weeks of unpaid time in a year to care for a family member who was seriously injured in the military. The FMLA also requires employers to reinstate you in the same position you held before you took your leave. North Carolina law offers certain additional protections; North Carolina employees are entitled to at least 4 unpaid hours per year for your children’s school activities. North Carolina employees are also legally entitled to take a reasonable amount of time away from work to get a court order for protection for themselves or a child in a domestic violence situation.
You have the right in North Carolina to unpaid leave to serve on a jury. When you return to work, you must be reinstated in your old position. You are also entitled to a reasonable amount of time to respond to a court subpoena.
Finally, you have the right to take up to 5 years off to serve in the armed forces. When you return from your service, your employer must reinstate you in your old position. North Carolina law extends this protection to members of the National Guard who are called into service and prohibits discrimination against employees who are part of the National Guard.
If your employer fires you for exercising any of the above rights, she has engaged in unlawful termination and you have the right to reinstatement, back pay, and potentially damages.
What Doesn’t Count as Wrongful Termination in North Carolina?
Many would-be lawsuit clients are shocked to learn that employers can fire them for a broad range of reasons – many of which can seem stupid or outright unfair. At-will employment protects your boss’s right to fire you for any reason, or no reason at all, including that your boss is simply in a bad mood, she doesn’t like you, or you made a one-time mistake. Unless your contract or the law specifically prohibits your boss from firing you for a specific reason, your termination is probably completely legal – no matter how unfair it may seem, no matter how long you’ve worked for the company, and no matter how good you are at your job.
If you’re not sure whether you’ve been the victim of an unlawful dismissal, it’s time to talk to a lawyer who specializes in employment law. Some seemingly innocuous decisions can actually be illegal. For example, if your boss disapproves of your clothing but your clothing is a part of your religion, firing you for continuing to wear it could be a form of religious discrimination. Likewise, employers who fire older employees because they’re not hip enough or no longer “match company culture” may be engaging in workplace sexual harassment.
If your employer is not being discriminatory, she can handle your employment however she wants. That may be bad business, but it’s not illegal. Some examples of behavior that are completely legal include:
- Asking you to work overtime or weekend hours.
- Making unreasonable demands, or requiring you to complete projects that you don’t have sufficient time to complete.
- Requiring you to complete tasks you dislike.
- Denying you a promotion when the reason for the denial is not discriminatory.
- Being difficult to work with; such behavior is only illegal when it rises to the level of harassment or becomes so threatening that it’s covered under other laws, such as laws against assault or stalking.
How Can I Document Wrongful Termination?
Strong evidence forms the foundation of every good lawsuit. If you’re worried that you’re about to be wrongfully terminated or have just lost your job, documenting everything can mean the difference between a case that gets results and one that flounders. Be sure to hang onto:
- Any and all employment documents, including HR manuals, your employment contract, and any agreements you’ve signed with your employer.
- Any and all written communications with your employer, including text messages and emails; if you’re worried that you’re about to be fired, consider communicating only in writing. This preserves a record that can help you win your case.
- Your job description and any evidence that you have surrounding your performance as an employee. For example, if you believe you were discriminated against but your boss insists you were fired for cause, a series of glowing performance reviews can help your case.
The way you behave leading up to your termination can also affect the outcome of your case. No matter how terribly your boss is treating you, your case will hinge on how well you performed your job. Slacking off, getting into fights with your boss, or otherwise being a problematic employee can hinder—and perhaps even destroy—your ability to win your case. Remember, if you were wrongly terminated, you must prove that you were a good employee and that your boss did not have a legitimate, legal reason to fire you.
Have you been wrongfully terminated?
If you feel you’ve been wrongfully terminated, speak to one of our experienced employment attorneys about filing suit against your employer. The process of filing a lawsuit can be a long one, but many employment lawsuits settle before going to trial. A settlement is particularly likely if you have very strong evidence or if your employer engaged in behavior that, if it goes public, could destroy the company’s reputation.
If you win, you can recover your actual damages – including lost wages and back pay – as well as punitive damages, attorney’s fees, and court costs. Of course, every lawsuit carries some risks. If you lose, you could be stuck paying the other side’s attorney’s fees, which is why it’s so important to ensure that your employer truly engaged in wrongful termination.