Was I Wrongfully Terminated? Common Questions Posed to an Employment Attorney

I receive a lot of phone calls and e-mails from frustrated or embarrassed employees, former employees, managers, and small business owners. These individuals tend to have the same general questions, and though a lawsuit is rarely warranted I try to provide some general wisdom when answering those questions.

This series of posts identifies some of the most common questions I receive, from individuals and employers, and my general answers to those questions. Please don’t take my answers as legal advice to your specific situation. My responses are provided in the most general terms. My hope is that those people seeking to contact an attorney will be better prepared.

Was I wrongfully terminated?

Probably not.

Most callers are aware of Washington’s “At-Will” employment. Practically speaking this means that unless you have a contract that says otherwise, or the reasons for termination are against very specific laws (such as discrimination), then you probably don’t have a bank-busting civil suit on your hands. There is no general law against your boss being a jerk. He or she can fire you for any reason or no reason at all. Sometimes it is just a personality conflict.[1]

Of course with any good rule, there are many exceptions and this is where I will usually spend a few minutes with an employee to explore those exceptions. Sometimes there is enough concern that a discussion on how to gather more information and protect an employee’s rights becomes important. Rarely the facts are so alarming that immediate action must be taken, but when they are – most employment law attorneys will let you know and spring to action.

In my initial conversation I will almost always ask an employee to play devil’s advocate and answer the following:

  1. What was the “real” reason you were terminated?
  2. What would your employer say was the “real” reason you were terminated?

Only in the rarest of instances will the employer be so unprepared or rash when acting to not come up with some reason for the termination. If an employee cannot provide that post fact justification I become concerned. The reason is that most employees have been dealing with the situation at their work long enough to have a good idea what any spurious claims will be. I understand hesitance in discussing personal matters with a stranger, but I would much rather have you tell me that you are hesitant than to deny any unfavorable fact.

Most often, more information is needed.

My initial requests for information will almost always be to obtain contracts, handbooks, writings, emails, text messages etc. that you legally have access to, the names of potential supporting witnesses, the names of the people involved with your firing etc.

Individuals who are entirely uncertain about their rights should review the materials provided through Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries, or Washington’s Human Rights Commission. If after a review of those materials the individual remains concerned about their treatment they should contact an attorney.

I hope the above discourse provides some guidance to individuals debating whether to seek an attorney for a potential wrongful discharge claim. Stay tuned for the next blog post where I discuss Severance Agreements and Planned Exits.

[1] This standard should not be confused with the standards for unemployment compensation coverage under RCW 50 et seq. which generally provides for benefits absent specific misconduct.