By Attorney Tara Swartz

I am frequently contacted by employees who tell me they have a ‘wrongful termination’ case and need a lawyer. I am told things such as their termination was unfair, or for no reason, or because their boss didn’t like them. There are stories of bad management, differing styles, favoritism, and nepotism. But when I delve deeper to determine if there are underlying other reasons for the termination (for example her boss didn’t like her…because she is a woman) I often come up empty. In turn, I find myself providing a lesson that I call Employment Law 101.

If you are trying to determine whether your termination was unlawful and want to know whether you have a legal claim, here are the basics:

Unless you have an employment contract stating otherwise, are a public employee, or belong to a union, you are in all likelihood an ‘at-will employee.’ This means that you can be fired for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all – just not for an unlawful reason. Literally, you can get your hair cut and walk into work the next day and have your boss tell you that you are fired because s/he does not like your haircut. Or you can wear a new tie that your boss does not like and get fired for wearing that dreadful tie. While these may be extreme examples they underscore my point. They may be surprisingly bad and in fact ridiculous reasons to terminate an employee (and by all accounts unfair) but they are not unlawful reasons.

The reality is that employees have false notions about what protections or entitlements they have (or don’t have) in the workplace. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but: you are not entitled to your job, you are not entitled to be treated fairly, and you are not even entitled to be treated well (a point that will be explored further in a later post). I am not saying that you do not feel wronged or even that your employer was not wrong. But what is unlawful and what is unfair (or wrong) is just not always the same thing.

So, you ask, what does this mean? What is unlawful when it comes to being fired?

It is unlawful to terminate someone because of their membership in a protected class. That is, you cannot be terminated because of your age, gender, sex, sexual orientation, pregnancy, religion, disability, race, or national origin. It is unlawful to terminate someone in retaliation for engaging in protected activities, such as complaining about discrimination or participating in an employment discrimination proceeding. It is unlawful to terminate someone for demanding unpaid wages, such as salary, overtime, and commissions. It is unlawful to terminate someone for ‘whistle blowing’ by reporting potentially unlawful conduct occurring in the workplace, such as fraud or unsafe work conditions. These are some of the more common reasons for termination that do result in a potential legal claim; it is not an exhaustive list.

If you believe that your termination was unlawful or you are unsure after reading this post, contact my Massachusetts employment law firm Swartz Law online or call me to discuss at 617-871-1500. I will be able to ask the right questions to evaluate whether in the end your termination was unlawful or thanks to that dreadful tie.