Do You Have a Wrongful Termination Case?

In the United States, employment relationships are presumed to be “at-will” in all states except Montana. Our country is one of only a handful where employment is predominantly at-will.  Most countries throughout the world allow employers to dismiss employees only for cause.   Some of the reasons given for our retention of the at-will presumption include respect for freedom of contract, employer deference, and the belief that both employers and employees favor an at-will employment relationship over job security.

At-Will Defined

At-will means that an employer can terminate an employee at any time for any reason—except an illegal one—or for no reason without incurring legal liability. Likewise, an employee is free to quit a job at any time for any or no reason with no adverse legal consequences.

At-will also means that an employer can change the terms of the employment relationship with no notice and no consequences. For example, an employer can alter wages, terminate benefits, or reduce paid time off. In its unadulterated form, the U.S. at-will rule leaves employees vulnerable to arbitrary and sudden dismissal, a limited or on-call work schedule depending on the employer’s needs, and unannounced cuts in pay and benefits.

North Carolina law generally presumes that you are employed at-will unless you can prove otherwise, usually through written documents relating to your employment or oral statements your employer has made. Normally you are at-will unless there is a contract for a specific period of time or you work for a governmental employer or in a union shop where just cause is required for termination.

Were You Wrongfully Terminated?

To be able to sue for wrongful termination, you’ll need to show your termination violated a specific law or terms of a contract, not just that it was unfair. If your employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, you may have a legal claim against your employer for wrongful termination.

There are several ways you can bring a wrongful termination lawsuit in North Carolina:

Discrimination (Federal)

Discrimination is prohibited by federal laws including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). These protect classes of individuals from termination based on their membership in that class.

Title VII covers discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. The ADA and ADEA cover disability-based and age-based discrimination, respectively. All complaints under any of these laws must be filed with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 180 days of the discriminatory event.

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 only covers race-based discrimination, but has the advantage of a four-year statute of limitations and no EEOC filing requirement. This is helpful if you miss your filing deadline with the EEOC on a racial discrimination case.

Family Medical Leave Act (Federal)

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) covers private employers with 50 or more employees. To qualify, an employee must have worked for his or her employer for at least 12 months (although not consecutively) and must have worked 1,250 hours for that employer in the preceding 12 months.

The FMLA grants employees up to 12 weeks in any 12-month period. This leave can be used for taking care of a serious health condition, family military leave, or expanding the employee’s family.

If the employee is able to return to work before his or her FMLA time is exhausted, he or she must be returned to the same or a nearly identical position. If the company does not allow this and tells the employee that he or she cannot return, the employee may bring suit under the FMLA.

North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act

North Carolina’s Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (REDA) protects employees from retaliation when they participate in certain activities. The main activities covered are filing, participating in, or testifying in a worker’s compensation claim or a complaint relating to the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Act.

REDA complaints are brought to the Department of Labor. The complaint must be filed within 180 days and will result in action by the Department or the issuance of a right to sue letter. This letter allows you to bring your case to court.

North Carolina Public Policy Exception

North Carolina recognizes a public policy exception to its at-will employment doctrine. No employer is allowed to fire an employee in violation of state public policy. Employers are not allowed to terminate their employees for complying with a legally-required duty such as jury duty giving truthful testimony in court. Several laws which have been recognized as expressing North Carolina public policy are the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act, the North Carolina Wage and Hour Act, and the North Carolina Constitution.

The North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act (EEPA) acts as a miniature Title VII, stating that it is against North Carolina public policy to discriminate based on “race, religion, color, national origin, age, sex, or handicap” if an employer has 15 or more employees. This is enforced by bringing a public policy claim with the EEPA as the public policy basis.

What’s Not Considered Wrongful Termination?

Unfortunately, at-will employment protects your boss’s right to fire you for any reason (or no reason at all) including that he’s simply in a bad mood, she doesn’t like you, or you made a one-time mistake. Unless your contract or the law specifically prohibits your boss from firing you for a specific reason, your termination is probably completely legal—no matter how unfair it may seem, no matter how long you’ve worked for them, and no matter how good you are at your job.

If your employer’s not being discriminatory, she can handle your employment however she wants. That may be bad business, but it’s not illegal. The following examples are completely legal:

  • Asking you to work overtime or weekend hours.
  • Making unreasonable demands or requiring you to complete projects you don’t have sufficient time to complete.
  • Requiring you to complete tasks you dislike.
  • Denying a promotion when the reason for the denial is not discriminatory.
  • Being difficult to work with; such behavior is only illegal when it rises to the level of harassment or becomes so threatening that it’s covered under other laws, such as laws against assault or stalking.

It’s important to remember that, in many instances, a wrongfully terminated employee can recover lost wages, other incidental related monetary damages, attorney’s fees, and costs of court. Of course, not outcome is guaranteed, so working closely and cooperatively with your attorney is crucial.

If you’re not sure if you’ve been the victim of an unlawful dismissal, it’s time to talk to an attorney who specializes in employment law. Whether you want to get your job back, negotiate a settlement, or file a lawsuit, Oliver & Cheek, PLLC can help you assert your legal rights. For more information, call (252) 633-1930 or visit

(Sources: North Carolina Bar Association; North Carolina State Human Resources; North Carolina Justice Center; North Carolina Department of Labor; National Conference of State Legislatures; United States Department of Labor, and Craig Patrick Hensel.)