Cleveland Wrongful Termination Attorneys
“Wrongful termination” is a phrase that’s widely known but easily misunderstood. Common sense might suggest an employer breaks the law whenever it fires an employee without just cause or for an unfair reason. But that isn’t necessarily so. Though Ohio and federal employment laws prohibit firing employees under many circumstances, they don’t apply every time an employer fires someone unfairly.
So how do you know if you have a claim for wrongful termination in Ohio? The best way to be sure is to talk to an Ohio employment lawyer.
What is at-will employment?
At the outset, it is important to understand that Ohio is what’s called an “at-will” employment state. At-will employment means that unless an employee has a contract of employment, an employer can fire the employee at any time and for any reason, as long as that reason is not otherwise prohibited by law. This means even an “unfair” termination will not necessarily be an illegal one. There are, however, plenty of protections for employees. And the phrase “wrongful termination” might be used to describe any one of them.
First, employers may not fire employees for a discriminatory reason. Employment law protects employees from termination based on age, disability, gender, race, religion, color, national origin, pregnancy, military status, or genetic information. Various Ohio and federal statutes protect employees from being fired for these reasons, including the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, to name a few. Because Ohio law applies to smaller employers than some of the comparable federal statutes, in some instances, Ohio law might protect an employee where federal law does not.
Second, employers may not fire employees in retaliation for blowing the whistle on discrimination or other illegal conduct. Both Ohio and federal employment discrimination protect employees who engage in what is called “protected activity.” Some examples of protected activity include:
- making a good faith complaint of employment discrimination;
- participating in an investigation into employment discrimination;
- providing testimony in an employment discrimination case;
- opposing discriminatory behavior in the workplace in general;
- requesting a reasonable accommodation for a disability or religious practice;
- requesting leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Various other federal statutes protect employees who blow the whistle on other sorts of illegal behavior. Two fairly common examples include protection for employees who report corporate or shareholder fraud, as well as those who report workplace safety violations. Employees who report other types of fraud by their employers might also be protected, depending on the type of fraud and to whom the employee makes the report.
What is “wrongful termination” under Ohio law?
There is also a claim under Ohio common law called “wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.” The Ohio Supreme Court first recognized this type of claim in a 1990 case called Greeley v. Miami Valley Maintenance Contractors, Inc. It applies in situations where an employee is fired for reasons that would jeopardize an important public policy. To prevail on public policy wrongful discharge claim, an employee must prove four things:
- That there is a relevant and clear public policy found in the Ohio or United States Constitutions, a statute, administrative regulation, or in the common law. This is commonly known as the “clarity” element.
- Firing employees under the circumstances involved in the employee’s termination would jeopardize the public policy at issue. This is called the “jeopardy” element.
- The employer’s decision to fire the employee was motivated by conduct related to the public policy at issue—also known as the “causation” element.
- Finally, the employer did not have an overriding legitimate business to fire the employee, which is unsurprisingly known as the “overriding justification” element.
Although wrongful discharge public policy claims might seem at first glance to be fairly straightforward, they are not. Court decisions over the years have constrained an employee’s ability to bring them. As a result, these claims will be successful only under a very limited set of circumstances. In most situations, employees fired for illegal reasons will instead have to turn to one of the employment discrimination or whistleblower retaliation laws for protection.
Representing Ohio Employees in Wrongful Discharge Cases
If you’ve been fired and are unsure whether you’ve got a claim for wrongful termination, talking to an experienced employment lawyer is the best way to find out.
At Bolek Besser Glesius, our Cleveland wrongful termination lawyers have successfully handled many of these various types of claims. We’ll work with you to identify whether you have a claim. We are devoted to justice, and if you retain us, we’ll be devoted to getting it for you.