Is Wrongful Termination Difficult to Prove?

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Proving wrongful termination.Like most states, Maryland is an “at-will” work state. This means employees can leave their jobs at any time for any reason. It also means that employers can fire people at any time for any reason or no reason at all. As you can imagine, this leaves the door wide open for employers to lie about why they fired you. And why would they lie if you live in an at-will work state? Because certain federal laws curtail an employer’s ability to fire you for any reason. These laws were put into place to protect people from discrimination or retaliation. But here’s the problem: Proving discrimination or retaliation involves proving motive. That means proving what was in someone’s mind, and as you can imagine, that can be tricky.

What Makes a Termination Illegal in an At-Will State?

Let’s begin our discussion by pinpointing what makes a termination illegal in a state where employers can supposedly fire you for “any reason or no reason at all.” There are federal laws in place that prohibit firing people based on:

  • Retaliation for filing a valid complaint against their employer for illegal activity or discrimination on the job;
  • Discrimination based on protected characteristics such as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, pregnancy, age, or genetic information; and
  • Retaliation for claiming benefits to which they are legally entitled.

Furthermore, if an employee is subject to an exceedingly hostile work environment and quits because the hostility becomes intolerable, this is considered “constructive discharge.” In other words, the work environment was so difficult to endure that the employee had no choice but to quit. Sometimes the law sees this as the equivalent of termination. However, these cases are difficult to prove unless the employee has substantial documentation.

Proving Wrongful Termination

At this point, we know what constitutes wrongful termination and that it can be difficult to prove because it requires evidence of motive. In other words, you must be able to establish the reason why your employer fired you to prove wrongful termination. And the only person who really knows what was in their head when they fired you is your employer. So how do you approach such a case?

Circumstantial evidence is key in proving wrongful termination because that is typically all you will have to work with. Your employer will probably offer up a vague and innocuous reason for your termination. Your job is to put together enough circumstantial evidence to refute that reason and establish a wrongful motive. Here are some tips on establishing motive.

Gather as Much Documentation as You Can

The first thing you want to do is establish your employment status. To accomplish this, gather as much of the following documentation as you can:

  • Employment contract if you were hired pursuant to one,
  • Your personnel file,
  • Employee handbook,
  • A copy of company policies,
  • Emails and memos that are relevant to the case,
  • Job evaluations,
  • Paystubs or pay records, and
  • Your termination notice if your employer provided one.

Gathering and combing through these documents can help your attorney put together evidence indicating that your termination was wrongful.

Write Down Everything That Happened Immediately

It is important to write down all of the details surrounding your termination. In fact, if you become aware that termination is a possibility, it would be wise to begin a journal. Write down daily events that happen at work that lead you to believe you may get fired soon. If you don’t have any prior warning, then begin the journal as soon as possible after your boss fires you. Establish a timeline of events, and record everything in as much detail as you can remember. Because our memories can become muddled over time, writing down specifics when your memory is fresh is essential.

Get Clear on What Laws Your Employer Violated

A lawyer can help you clarify which laws—out of the many listed above—your employer broke by terminating you. It is important to establish the precise legal theory that best supports your claim. This helps you sort through the evidence, categorize it properly, and begin constructing your case.

Establish That Your Employer Knew About Protected Activity

If you get fired for reporting illegal activity in the workplace, it is crucial to establish that your employer was aware that you “blew the whistle.” For example, suppose you reported your employer for violating federal workplace safety requirements and were subsequently fired for it. To establish the wrongfulness of your termination, you must establish that your employer knew you blew that whistle. Likewise, suppose you reported sexual harassment or disparate treatment according to race and got fired. To prove your boss fired you in retaliation, you must establish that your employer knew of that report.

Essentially, you are trying to establish cause and effect. And the closer in time the events are, the more compelling the evidence. For instance, if you made a report on Wednesday and got fired Friday, it is easier to prove that you got fired over the report. Conversely, if months pass between events, it can be harder to prove. When so much time passes, the employer can use vague excuses like economic downturn or negative work performance as their reason for firing you. However, if you document how your employer’s treatment of you changed after the report, you are one step closer to proving wrongful motive.

Get an Experienced Attorney on Your Side

Finally, the most important thing you can do to further your case is to speak with an experienced labor legal practitioner at the Smithey Law Group. When your employer fires you for vindictive or retaliatory purposes, it can hurt your mental health as well as your pocketbook. The laws of this country allow you to stand up for what is right in the workplace, so allow us to protect those rights for you. Proving wrongful termination is tricky, and we can help. And if you are an employer who wants to increase compliance with current state laws, we are happy to help with that as well. Call us at 410-919-2990 or contact us online to schedule an appointment to discuss your case today.

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Joyce Smithey, a seasoned employment and labor law attorney, has over 22 years of experience representing both employers and employees in Maryland and D.C. Her practice, rooted in a deep understanding of employment law, spans administrative hearings to federal litigation. Joyce's approach is comprehensive, focusing on protecting client interests while ensuring legal compliance. A Harvard graduate, her career began in Fortune 500 companies, transitioning to law after a degree from Boston University School of Law. Joyce's expertise is recognized by numerous awards, including Maryland’s Top 100 Women. At Smithey Law Group LLC, which she founded in 2018, Joyce continues to champion employment rights, drawing on her rich background in law and business.

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