Wrongful termination occurs when an employer chooses to dismiss an employee for any reasons deemed unlawful, such as those related to a worker’s personal characteristics or religious/cultural beliefs. Employers are also not permitted to violate any existing contractual stipulations that outline reasons or timelines associated with a worker’s employment. When firing a worker, employers must closely follow all existing wrongful termination laws to avoid incurring lawsuits filed by terminated employees.
At-will Employment in Colorado
Colorado employers maintain what is known as an at-will relationship with their employees. At-will regulations stipulate that employers are not required to provide prior notice to workers being terminated, nor are they obligated to provide a reason for any firings in absence of relevant laws or contractual obligations. Additionally, employers in at-will states can terminate a relationship with a worker at any time. Despite Colorado’s at-will employment designation, employers must be aware of any existing exceptions to the statute to ensure they remain in complete compliance.
Wrongful Termination in Colorado
Laws exist on both the state and federal level that contain exceptions to at-will employment regulations. Employers in violation of these laws can be on the receiving end of wrongful termination claims filed by terminated employees. Such claims can result in a number of negative consequences, including an employer obligation to provide employees with unpaid wages or reimbursement of legal fees. Employers may also be required to cover any punitive damages awarded by the court. In some cases, employers will be ordered to reinstate fired employees if claims are found to have merit.
Breach of Contract: In Colorado, contractual agreements devised between employers and employees will override any existing at-will employment laws. Additionally, policies regarding employee termination created by an employer may constitute a contract in some cases. To this end, contracts can be expressed or implied, and those policies created by an employer that govern firings must be extended to each worker employed by an enterprise. Collective bargaining agreements established for union members are also covered under the breach of contract exception.
Discrimination: There are a number of state and federal laws that outline when a firing could be construed as discriminatory. Discrimination is a leading factor in many wrongful termination claims, which illustrates why employers must be fully aware of those classes protected under existing regulations. When it comes to wrongful termination related to discrimination, the following categorizations are protected under current laws: ethnicity/race, skin color, disability, status as a veteran, age, sex, country of origin and religious belief. Along with these federal protections, Colorado also recognizes sexual orientation (including gender identity), ancestry and marriage to a co-worker as protected designations.
Retaliation: Employers are also not permitted to fire employees based on their participation in any legally protected activities. Known as the retaliation exception, a retaliatory firing would occur if an employer opted to terminate a worker’s employment for performing any protected acts, such as filing a worker’s compensation claim or becoming involved in union activities. Whistleblower protections are often related to the retaliation exception. While many state’s whistleblower laws only extend to those employees working in the public sector, both private and public workers in Colorado are covered under whistleblower ordinances.
Public Policy: The public policy exception is also applied to Colorado employers despite the state’s at-will employment designation. This exception dictates that employers are not allowed to let a worker go for reasons that could be considered in violation of existing public policy. These reasons can include firing an employee for filing a lawsuit based on an employer’s illegal or discriminatory practices, refusal to commit a crime on behalf of an employer, performance of an act that is thought to be in the public’s best interest (such as participating in jury duty or joining the national guard) and engagement in any law-abiding off-duty activities.
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