If you were let go or fired from your job, it's natural to feel angry or that you were treated unfairly. You may even be exploring a wrongful termination suit to get back pay, punitive damages, or even get reinstated at your job. But before you do, it's important to understand the reasons behind your job loss and what constitutes wrongful termination in North Carolina. Our employment lawyers in Pinehurst discuss the issue to help you determine your options.
Understanding At Will Employment in North Carolina
North Carolina is one of many "at-will employment" states. This removes protections for employees and minimizes the ability to seek wrongful termination damages by allowing employers to fire a worker for virtually any reason with few exceptions. Being late once, a personality clash or a simple mistake are all legally acceptable reasons to terminate an employee in the eyes of the law, and there doesn't need to be a "paper trail" or warning beforehand. This may seem frustrating and unfair, but there isn't legal recourse unless it can be proven that the firing was due to a protected reason.
Causes for an NC Wrongful Termination Case
While the state typically sets employment laws, there are federal mandates, such as minimum wage and certain employee protections that, if not met, can constitute an NC wrongful termination case.
Both state and federal laws prevent an employer from firing an employee based on the following:
- Sex (sexual harassment does fall under this category)
- Age (if 40 or older)
- Citizenship status
- Diagnosis of HIV or AIDS
- Diagnosis of sickle cell or hemoglobin C
- Military status or service
However, North Carolina employers are only legally required to comply if they have over 15 employees.
If you were fired because of a protected characteristic or you were fired for not responding to harassment or requiring reasonable accommodations for a disability, these are illegal and can be the basis for a wrongful termination suit.
Employers are not allowed to retaliate against an employee for any of the following reasons:
- Filing a lawsuit;
- Testifying in court against the employer;
- Reporting activities that are illegal or unethical to a government agency or oversight agency;
- Filing a report of discrimination
If you lodge a complaint against your employer, it should be recorded with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but it may be helpful to file a complaint with them. This protects you from retaliation.
Exercising Your Legal Rights
Employees have a right to minimum wage, certain job conditions, and overtime eligibility in non-salary jobs. If an employer refuses to pay an employee minimum wage and fires an employee for complaining or filing a wage claim, the employee can bring a wrongful termination suit.
Additional protected rights include:
- Military leave;
- Jury duty;
- Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
- Domestic violence order allowing an employee to get an order of protection for themselves or their child.
- Filing a workers' compensation claim
- Engaging in lawful activities (like smoking or drinking alcohol) when off-duty and away from the workplace.
Breaking an Employment Contract
If you signed an employment contract with the company, and there are protections against getting fired or a promise of job security, at-will employment is not applicable to you. In North Carolina, if you sign an employee handbook that states you have a series of disciplinary steps prior to termination, that can be considered a contract, thus, if you're fired the first time you're late, this is a legal breach of contract.
FAQ on Wrongful Termination
Can You Be Fired for No Reason in North Carolina?
North Carolina is what is known as an “at-will employment” state. This means that unless there is a specific employment contract or law protecting employees, an employer can fire an employee at any moment for any reason, or for no reason at all.
There are, however, some laws that can be used as the bases for a wrongful termination suit if they are breached. For instance, state and federal laws prohibit an employer from firing someone based on race or ethnicity, color, sex, pregnancy, religion, and more. You can also not be fired in an act of retaliation.
Finally, if you have signed a contract that states there is a different procedure for employee termination, like a series of disciplinary actions that need to be taken before firing, you can file a suit for breach of contract.
How Do You Prove Wrongful Termination
If you are filing a wrongful termination suit, the burden of proof falls to you to show that your employer’s stated reason for termination was untrue, and that in instead was for one of the illegal reasons, such as discrimination or retaliation.
First, you’ll have to prove that the stated reason for termination was false. You may be able to do this by presenting evidence like past performance reviews, timecards, and other employees statements.
Then, you will need to present evidence to prove that the real reason for your termination was one that violated the law, or an employment contract. You may be able to do this by providing supervisor statements, emails, and employer history.
Can You Collect Unemployment if You are Fired in North Carolina?
If you have been fired, you may be wondering if you’re still eligible to collect unemployment. In many cases, you are able to file for unemployment as long as the reason given for your termination doesn’t qualify as “misconduct.” So, if you were fired for a lack of skill or a layoff, you will still be eligible. Here are a few examples of what qualifies as misconduct in North Carolina.
- Violating an alcohol or drug policy
- Physical violence at your workplace
- Behavior violating antidiscrimination laws
- Behavior violating anti-harassment laws.
- Lying on employment documents
- Stealing company property
- Violating a written attendance policy
- Three or more write-ups for bad performance in the year prior to termination
Who Can Help You File a Wrongful Termination Suit in North Carolina?
If you are getting ready to file a wrongful termination suit in North Carolina, an employment law attorney can help. From guiding you through the process, to helping seek out and gather evidence, to advocating for you in the courtroom, an attorney can help with the nuances of these complicated cases, especially if you are going up against a larger corporation.
What Is the Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Termination in NC?
If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, you must file your claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within three years.
Final Word: Wrongful Termination in North Carolina
If you've been fired from your job, and you feel it was not handled fairly or legally, schedule a consultation with our team. We will look at the details of your case and help you determine which direction to go.