If your employer has fired you, it’s normal to wonder whether the termination was legal. In Colorado, as in the majority of states, most employees have a non-contractual, “at will” relationship with their employer. Being at-will means that an employer can terminate you at any time, without explanation or warning. That said, employers cannot fire at-will employees for an illegal reason. That is called wrongful termination, or wrongful discharge, and you may have the right to sue.
Let’s take a look at key exceptions to the at-will doctrine and potential grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit.
Wrongful Termination for Discrimination
Federal and state law make it illegal for an employer to fire an employee for discriminatory reasons, which may include discrimination relating to race, color, religion, pregnancy, disability, national origin, advanced age, sexual orientation or gender identity. If you believe your employer fired you for a discriminatory reason, you should speak to an experienced lawyer to help you through the process—which may require filing a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or Colorado Civil Rights Division. There are deadlines for filing a charge, so don’t wait to talk to an attorney, or you may lose the right to pursue your claims.
In discrimination cases, employees may be entitled to receive both compensatory damages and punitive damages—money awarded to punish the employer and deter the company from continuing to engage in this illegal conduct.
Wrongful Termination for Retaliation
Retaliation occurs when an employer fires, demotes or disciplines an employee for taking a legally protected action relating to the workplace—such as whistleblowing, reporting or investigating an act of discrimination or harassment, or filing a complaint about hazardous work conditions. To prove retaliation, you must be able to show that your employer fired you because you had engaged in one of these protected acts.
As with discrimination cases, employees who successfully prove that their employer fired them for retaliation may receive both compensatory damages and punitive damages.
Wrongful Termination for Breach of Contract
An employment contract is a legal document between the employer and employee that establishes the terms of employment and dismissal. Ideally, an employment contract is a written document, but oral agreements are still enforceable. Colorado even enforces implied employment contracts. (For instance, if an employer never reprimands anyone for being late, over time, employees believe that casual work hours are a term of their employment—thus, an implied contract. So if the employer suddenly fired someone for a late arrival, that could be a wrongful termination for breach of the implied contract.)
Employees with an employment contract may have strong grounds for bringing a wrongful termination claim against their employer. If you have a contract, then you’re no longer an at-will employee. Instead, you can only be terminated “for cause”—meaning your employer can only fire you if you have failed to fulfill the terms required by your contract.
If your employer has breached your contract, you may be entitled to compensatory damages. This financial payout is usually the sum you would have been paid under the contract, had you not been fired.
Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy
An employer may not fire an at-will employee when the termination violates public policy. In other words, the employer cannot fire someone for reasons most people would find ethically or morally repugnant or in violation of a policy found elsewhere in the law. For example, an employer cannot fire someone for exercising a legal right (such as serving on a jury, voting or filing a worker’s compensation claim), refusing to commit a crime, reporting illegal workplace conduct (whistleblowing), or engaging in lawful off-duty activities.
Hire A Wrongful Termination Attorney in Colorado
If you believe you have been wrongfully discharged in Colorado, don’t hesitate to contact an attorney. The experienced employment attorneys at Livelihood Law are happy to discuss your rights and options. Contact us here today.