The Difference Between Unfair Termination and Wrongful Termination

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Man fired from his work.Losing a job or having to fire someone is not easy. Maryland is an “at-will” employment state, meaning either the employee or employer can end the relationship at any time and for any reason. While this may seem straightforward, the laws governing employee termination are quite complex. Particularly, the grounds on which an employee is dismissed can have significant impacts on both the employee and employer.

If you are questioning your termination of employment, it’s important to understand the difference between unfair termination and wrongful termination. Contact us to discuss your situation with an experienced employment attorney.

The Difference Between Unfair Termination and Wrongful Termination

The main difference between these two terms is wrongful termination involves a violation of a legal right or public policy. Just because your firing seems unfair, unreasonable, or unjustified does not mean it is wrongful. Many people use the two terms interchangeably, but they do not necessarily mean the same thing from a legal standpoint. Firing an employee for not liking the same sports team is not necessarily fair, but it also isn’t illegal.

How at-Will Employment Affects Unfair and Wrongful Terminations

Maryland employees work “at-will” for their employers. This means, unless there is an agreement otherwise (such as an employment contract), an employee can be terminated for any reason, or no reason at all, and without notice. If you show up to work in a bad mood, your employer can fire you. While this may be unfair, it is not wrongful. The employee also has the same right to leave at any time and for any reason.

That being said, there are some exceptions. Maryland employers do not have a free pass to fire employees for just any reason under the sun. Even in at-will states, like Maryland, federal and state employment laws apply. If the firing violates the employee’s legal rights or a public policy, the firing will be considered wrongful and the employee may file a wrongful termination claim.

Founding attorney Joyce E. Smithey of Smithey Law Group LLC has decades of experience representing both employees and employers facing wrongful discharge claims. She and her team can help you evaluate whether a termination is unfair or wrongful and will assist you in taking the appropriate action.

Wrongful Termination Claims

Wrongful termination occurs when an employer fires, terminates, or lays off an employee for an unlawful purpose. Here are examples of illegal reasons that employees commonly cite when filing a wrongful termination claim:

  • Firing in violation of federal and state anti-discrimination laws;
  • Firing in violation of an employment contract;
  • Firing in violation of labor and employment laws;
  • Firing out of retaliation against an employee; and
  • Firing in violation of public policy.

To be successful with a wrongful termination claim, the employee must show that there is a relationship between the employer’s firing and the employee’s protected actions or protected characteristic, such as race or gender. This is what differentiates an unfair termination from a wrongful termination.

Anti-Discrimination Violation

Discrimination is what employees most commonly cite as the reason for their wrongful terminations claim. Under federal law, it is illegal to fire an employee on the basis of a protected characteristic, such as race, age, color, national origin, disability, genetic information, religion, or sex. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 collectively prohibit this type of employment discrimination.

Keep in mind, however, that just because the employee has one of the protected characteristics does not make him or her immune from firing. For example, a woman who does not meet her sales quota can still be fired on the basis of poor performance and is not protected simply because she is a woman.

Maryland has its own anti-discrimination law that applies to employers of at least 15 employees.

Employment Contract Violation

If the employee and employer have an agreement that contains details about the employment, this may not be an at-will employment relationship. For example, if an agreement states that the employee can only be fired with cause, and the employee is terminated for no reason, there is a strong basis to file a wrongful termination claim for breach of contract.

Even if there is no written contract between the employee and employer, verbal agreements may be construed as implied contracts. For instance, an employer who states that they need the employee’s services for two years may be in breach of contract if they dismiss the employee any time before the two-year mark.

Violation of Public Policy

Maryland employees can bring a claim for wrongful termination alleging that the firing violates public policy. Employers violate public policy by firing out of retaliation for an employee doing one of the following:

  • Filing a workers’ compensation claim;
  • Filing a complaint or testifying in a proceeding regarding violations of workplace safety laws;
  • Refusing to engage in an illegal or improper activity;
  • Reporting illegal or unethical activities to governmental agencies; and
  • Participating in a lawful union activity.

Federal and state laws, such as whistleblower laws, protect employees against retaliatory firings, which violate public policy.

How Long Do You Have to File a Wrongful Termination Claim?

The statute of limitations for filing a wrongful termination claim varies based on your course of action. For example, in Maryland, a breach of contract claim has a three-year statute of limitations. However, you generally have 300 days (180 days in some cases) to file a charge with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) asserting employment discrimination.

Ultimately, it is incredibly important to act quickly if you suspect you are the victim of wrongful termination. Contact the Smithey Law Group LLC as soon as possible to discuss filing a wrongful discharge claim.

Contact Maryland Employment Legal Matters Lawyer Joyce E. Smithey

For more information about unfair termination versus wrongful termination, reach out to Smithey Law Group LLC. We can discuss your case and help you understand your rights under the law. Do not delay in contacting our firm as there are legal deadlines to filing a claim. You can request your confidential appointment online or over the phone by calling 410-881-8190.

Our award-winning employment law firm is made up of seasoned legal team with over 158 years of combined experience. We focus exclusively on labor and employment matters and care deeply about protecting your rights.

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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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