In my years practicing as an employment lawyer in Cleveland, a phrase I have heard time and again is “wrongful termination.” Although commonly used, the phrase can be a bit misleading. This post addresses what it does (and does not) mean under Ohio and federal employment law.
First, what it is not. Wrongful termination is not the same thing as an unfair or unjust termination. An unfortunate reality for employees is that employment law does not always deal in right versus wrong or fair versus unfair. Ohio is an at-will employment state, which means unless an employee has an employment contract, he or she can be fired for an unfair or unjust reason, as long as it is not an otherwise illegal reason. Thus, “wrongful” in the employment context does not typically have the same meaning we would use in everyday conversation.
So what does wrongful termination actually mean? While there is not a specific definition in federal or Ohio employment law, the phrase is generally shorthand to describe when an employee is fired in violation of an employment law statute. For instance, wrongful termination might be used to refer to employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, pregnancy, or disability. It might also include retaliation for whistleblowing activity in the workplace.
Sometimes wrongful termination also refers to a claim under Ohio common law (meaning not created by a statute) called “wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.” That type of claim arises when an employee is fired for reasons that would jeopardize an important public policy, but the source of the public policy itself does not provide the employee with his or her own cause of action. However, these claims are notoriously difficult to prove, and the circumstances in which they arise are few and far between.
Whether wrongful termination is illegal depends on how one uses the phrase. If you are an employee who believes you might have been fired wrongf . . . ahem, illegally, your best bet is to contact an employment lawyer in Cleveland who can analyze your particular situation and advise you of your rights.