“Wrongful termination” is not a magic, legal term – that’s why, for people not familiar with employment law, it’s a term that’s greatly misunderstood.
Some terminations are wrongful, others aren’t. Only when an employer violates a specific law or legal doctrine is a termination wrongful. Unfortunately, many terminations that seem unfair, unethical or just mean-spirited are perfectly legal.
In Colorado, as in most states, the employer-employee relationship is generally considered “at will.” This means the employer can fire or demote the employee for any reason. But there are a number of exceptions to the “employment at will” doctrine. An employer can’t fire an employee if the employer’s motive is illegal discrimination, such as discrimination based on race, sex, age, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. Another expection is known as the “public policy” exemption: where the employer terminates the employee who has exercised a right that courts feel should be protected.
Some employees with special skills or in upper levels of management have the bargaining power to negotiate an express, written contract with an employer, often for a definite period of time. (In unionized workplaces, labor unions also have this power on behalf of a group of employees.) Sometimes an employer, whether through a written employment manual or through its statements or conduct, will convey to an employee an express or implied promise that the employee will have more protection than an at-will employee does. If the employer breaks that promise, the employee will have a claim for wrongful termination.
It is often unclear when an employer has crossed the line into the realm of wrongful termination. Illegal motives, as well as legitimate reasons for termination, can be difficult to show. Wrongful termination cases frequently turn on complex factual situations and highly subjective factors. In many cases, the only way we know whether a termination was wrongful is that a judge or a jury tells us so.
If you have a written employment manual or handbook, you should read it carefully. Some manuals will say that an employee has a right to a warning before he or she can be terminated. Your employer may – or may not – have to follow warning procedures in the manual, depending on whether the manual, or other conduct of the employer, has created a legal contract or an otherwise binding legal promise. If, for example, the manual contains a clear and conspicuous “disclaimer” stating that it does not create a contract and that employees are terminable at the will of the employer, you are likely to have difficulty enforcing any warning procedures.
If you believe you have been a victim of unlawful discrimination, you are required to file a Charge of Discrimination with an agency of the state or federal government before taking any other legal action (see our employment discrimination page). And, the time frame in which you must file a charge can be very short.
If your termination did not involve discrimination, but was illegal for another reason, you usually have the right to seek immediate relief in court. However, there are many ways to try to resolve your dispute with your former employer without resorting to litigation. If possible, you should consult with a lawyer to help you plan a strategy to accomplish your objective.