It can be devastating to suddenly be fired or let go from your job. Whether you’ve been at the company for six months or 10 years, many dismissals come out of the blue. You may instantly feel angry and feel that your termination is unjust.

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Whether or not the termination was fair, though, doesn’t answer the question of whether or not it was legal. After an unfair yet legal termination, you may have no recourse. However, if you were wrongfully dismissed, you may have the right to fight for reinstatement or compensation.

Consider a few questions, and then decide if it’s time to speak with an attorney about your rights.

Were you an at-will employee?

Whether you were an at-will employee or had an employment contract makes a big difference in your rights post-dismissal. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), an at-will employee is one who can terminate their own employment for any reason, at any time, and whom can be let go for any lawful reason. At-will employees work without any predefined terms of duration. Almost every state presumes you are an at-will employee unless you have an employment contract that states otherwise, and most employees fall under this category.

If you were employed based on a contract, then when and how your job can be terminated depends on the terms of that agreement.

If you aren’t sure what type of employee you were, consider calling an attorney for a consultation. An experienced employment lawyer will determine whether you were an at-will employee or were working under a valid employment contract. In either case, your attorney can then review whether your rights were violated. If there is evidence to support you were wrongly dismissed, a lawyer will explain your legal options.

Does your situation fit an exception to at-will employment?

In general, at-will employees can be terminated for any reason. However, as the Society for Human Resources Management explains, at-will employment is not a blank check for terminating employees. There are exceptions to this rule that make a termination unlawful, including:

  • Violation of a law
  • Public policy
  • Implied contracts
  • Good faith

The reason for your dismissal cannot be something that is protected by state or federal law. For instance, you may have the right to take time off after having a baby based on the Family and Medical Leave Act. You cannot be fired for taking time off you are legally entitled to, nor can you be fired for an illegal reason, such as discrimination.

Secondly, an employer cannot fire you for reason that violates public policy, meaning your activity was protected by statute or a constitutional right. The most common form of wrongful termination in violation of public policy is when an individual is fired for reporting illegal conduct, also known as “whistleblowing.” If you are terminated for a reason that violates public policy, then you may have a legal claim, although the public policy exception is not allowed in every state.

Additionally, there are many employees working under specific rules or terms that are either dictated at work or through an employee handbook. These terms may not amount to an express, written contract, but they may count as an implied contract between you and your employer. If this is true, then in some states, you cannot be dismissed in violation of this implied contract. For example, if your employer verbalizes to you that you will remain employed as long as you hit certain goals, this counts as an implied contract.

Finally, 11 states recognize covenants of good faith between employers and employees. Under this covenant, your employer can only terminate you for cause. If there is not a good reason for terminating your employment, such as poor performance or illegal conduct, then you may have a claim against your employer.

You can consult the NCSL’s breakdown of all of these at-will exceptions by state to determine if any of them apply to you.

Did you face discrimination or harassment?

Based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and many state laws, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against you or to fire you in retaliation of you reporting discrimination or harassment. Title VII is a federal law that specifically protects you against discrimination related to your race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Other federal laws protect you from discrimination related to your age or disability. Almost every state has a similar law, though many states protect against additional characteristics, such as sexual orientation.

If you were discriminated against at work and this led to your dismissal, or if you believe you were retaliated against for reporting harassment, call a lawyer immediately. You may have the right to make a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a similar state agency.

Is there documentation regarding your dismissal?

You should look at why you were fired and whether there is documentation backing up that reason. There are many reasons that cannot be used to dismiss an at-will employee. If your situation lacks documentation, you should investigate if you were wrongfully dismissed.

For example, if you were fired for performance issues and there are multiple poor performance reviews in your human resources record, then you may not have a legal claim. However, if your manager cites poor performance, but you have a record of stellar performance reviews, this is an important inconsistency. If you are fired without a reason or there is no documentation supporting a stated reason, consider digging deeper and talking with an attorney.

Should you consult an employment attorney?

If, based on the questions above, you believe your termination may not have been legal, then seek an objective opinion from a local and experienced employment attorney. Keep in mind that you may not like what you hear; you may have been an at-will employee without any evidence that you were wrongly terminated, or you may have been employed under a contract, yet properly dismissed based on that agreement.

In any case, most employment attorneys work under contingency fees or offer an initial free consultation and will be able to advise whether or not you have options for legal recourse.

Read more about finding the right attorney to represent your case here.