Several reasons for discharging someone from their job are illegal under state or federal law, but even if the termination seemed unfair or mean spirited, it may or may not have been unlawful. It is important that any employee in this position speak with legal counsel as soon as possible to understand whether they have legal remedies against their ex-employer and to give themselves enough time to meet any claim filing deadlines.
At-will employment and exceptions
Most employment is “at-will,” which means that the employer can terminate an employee for any legal reason or for no reason at all. Federal and state laws prohibit firing employees (or not hiring applicants) for these types of reasons:
- Discrimination, including harassment: Federal law forbids discharge based on protected employee characteristics like race, national origin, color, religion, sex (not only gender, but also pregnancy, sexual orientation and gender identity), disability, genetic information and age (if 40 or older). State and local laws may protect additional classes. For example, Maryland also protects against discrimination based on marital status; the City of Baltimore on ancestry; and Prince George’s County on occupation, personal appearance, criminal record and political opinion.
- Retaliation and whistleblower protection: Broadly, many laws forbid employment termination as retaliation for exercising rights, speaking up or participating in the legal process involving illegal discrimination or harassment or other employment protections, workers’ compensation, labor union participation, work safety violations or an employer’s illegal activity.
- Violation of employment contract or collective bargaining agreement (CBA): When there is an employment agreement between employer and employee or a CBA between the employer and the employee’s union, either of these contracts may restrict the reasons or processes for employee discharge.
- Public policy: Maryland law prohibits employment termination when it would violate certain public policies. For example, an employer may not fire someone after the employee refused to do something illegal at the request of the employer.
Complex area of employment law
Consultation with an experienced lawyer when an employee faces potentially wrongful discharge (or illegal failure to hire) is extremely helpful because applicable laws are complicated. Federal, state or local laws may be involved, and each applies to certain employers based on type or size.
An employee may be able to file a complaint with a government agency like the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights (MCCR) or local civil rights departments. They may also be able to file a state or federal lawsuit in court, but some laws require filing with the jurisdiction’s applicable government agency first.
An attorney can help to sort out these complex issues and provide information, guidance and representation.