Most employees in New Jersey are at-will employees meaning that their employment can be terminated for any reason unless it is unlawful. Employees have the right to walk away from a job, and employers can fire an employee without stating why if the employee has not signed an employment contract.
However, there are several exceptions to at-will employment which are explained more fully below. An employee who has been terminated under these circumstances may be able to file a claim for wrongful termination. It is in your best interests to contact an experienced attorney if you have any further questions about your specific case. The partners at Kim & Feliz, LLC are prepared to speak with you today.
What is at-will employment in New Jersey?
Unless there is an employment contract or legal entitlement to a position (such as teacher tenure), employees in New Jersey are considered at-will employees. This means that either the employee or the employer can terminate the employment at any time without notice. Employees who have signed an employment contract may only be terminated pursuant to the terms of the contract.
Many people believe that an employer must provide a performance-based reason for terminating employment. However, an employer does not need to give any reason at all for firing an employee. Likewise, employees are not required to give any reason for terminating their employment and cannot be legally penalized for leaving a job at any time unless they have signed a contract.
Sometimes the circumstances surrounding an employee's termination may seem suspicious. If you believe that your rights have been violated, an attorney may be able to help you file a wrongful termination claim. The following is a discussion of some of the exceptions to at-will employment and examples of unlawful termination cases.
Unlawful Discrimination in New Jersey
It is against the law to decline to hire an employee or terminate an employee based on a discriminatory reason. An employer may not engage in discriminatory conduct on the basis of the following:
- Race or ethnicity
- National origin
- Sexual orientation
Since an employer is unlikely to admit to terminating your employment based on discrimination, circumstantial evidence may help you prove your case.
For example, if a company's employees are all members of a certain demographic, this is just one factor that can suggest there may be a pattern of workplace discrimination. The pay grades and positions held by members of different ages, races, or genders are other factors that can suggest discriminatory practices. Direct evidence of discrimination may include comments made to the employee by supervisors or other employees.
There is a short window of time to report discrimination, and an employee may need to report a claim to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) first before filing a lawsuit. Our attorneys can guide you through the first steps of reporting discrimination and provide more information about your civil rights and the federal claims process.
FMLA Violations in New Jersey
Qualifying employees are allowed to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid annual leave because of an illness or to take care of a sick family member. Employers may not terminate an employee for taking time off work pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Employees who take FMLA leave must be restored to the same position and job duties that they had before they took time off from work.
Employees who need to take FMLA leave may want to speak to their company's human resource department and submit a formal leave request. Employers must keep medical information confidential. If you have questions about your rights or believe you may have been fired because of an FMLA violation, it's a good idea to speak with an employment law attorney about your concerns.
Whistleblowing and Employer Retaliation Claims
Employees may not be fired for engaging in legally protected activities like reporting discrimination, sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions, fraud, or abuse. For example, if a nurse is working at a nursing home and observes another employee abusing a resident, the nurse can report the conduct without fear of retaliation from the employer.
Specifically, your employer is not allowed to retaliate against you for engaging in the following legally protected activities:
- Reporting a discrimination or harassment claim to EEOC;
- Participating as a witness in an internal investigation; and
- Filing a report pursuant to whistleblowing laws.
Retaliation can come in many forms, like a demotion or changed job duties with termination being one of the more extreme forms of retaliation by an employer. An employee who has been terminated after engaging in protected activities -- such as reporting information covered by whistleblowing statutes -- may be eligible to file a claim for wrongful termination to ask for his or her position and benefits to be restored and for additional damages and attorney's fees.
In some cases, instead of firing an employee, an employer changes the terms of the employee's job duties or working conditions so that the employee can no longer do his or her job because conditions are intolerable. This may amount to constructive termination if it appears that the employer has taken steps to force the employee to quit.
For example, harassing an employee to the point he or she is so miserable at work that they finally quit may amount to a constructive discharge. Ordinarily quitting a job would bar a claim for wrongful termination unless the employee can prove that he or she was constructively discharged. Sometimes constructive termination overlaps with discrimination if the reason the employee quit was over prohibited derogatory remarks.
Proving Your Case in Fort Lee, NJ
If you feel that you have been wrongfully terminated, an attorney can help you gather more information to prove your case in court. If you report your case to the EEOC, the agency will conduct an investigation before issuing a notice of your right to sue. It is a good idea to keep copies of all company emails and other important documents. If you lose access to a work email, make sure to keep copies of any documents that you feel are relevant to your case in a safe place as long as doing so is not prohibited. You or your attorney may be able to request a copy of your personnel file.
Timing is often key in proving a wrongful termination case. For example, an employee who is fired right after returning from FMLA leave may be able to prove that the termination was illegal because it was directly connected to the leave request. Many times an employee feels that something may be wrong at work shortly before his or her employment is terminated. If you feel like your rights are being violated, speak to an attorney right away.