Wrongful termination laws are established to regulate when and under what circumstances companies may discharge employees. For example, employers cannot terminate workers because they are of a particular race, because of the religion they practice or because they were born outside of the U.S. Additionally, it may be considered illegal if an employer violates the terms of any employment contracts. Not adhering to these laws may open employers up to consequences including legal action. The principle of at-will employment is integral to wrongful termination laws.
At-will Employment in Massachusetts
A number of states, Massachusetts included, have put at-will doctrines into effect. Through these laws, employers are permitted to fire workers without any cause and at any time. This is only the case in situations when there are no other laws governing the relationship and when employers do not have contracts with their employees that specify otherwise. While these laws are in place, there are several exemptions that limit companies’ rights to terminate employees.
Wrongful Termination in Massachusetts
There are a number of recognized exceptions to the at-will employment law in Massachusetts. If a company fires an employee under these circumstances, it is a violation of the state’s employment laws. This could allow a worker to file a lawsuit against his or her employer. Through claims such as this, employees may be able to get compensation, including front and back pay, reasonable accommodations, reimbursement of attorney fees and punitive damages. In addition, the worker may be able to get his or her job back.
Breach of Contract: Sometimes, employers and their workers may sign employment contracts. These may note that employees are not at-will workers and specify under what circumstances they can lose their jobs. This essentially voids an employer’s right to fire a worker at any time and for any reason. Violating the stipulations of any employment contracts could result in legal action. Therefore, it is key for companies to honor the terms of such contracts, whether they are written or oral.
Discrimination: Discrimination of some type is involved in most wrongful termination situations. Under federal law, employers cannot fire workers based on factors including the following: age, sex, pregnancy, genetic information, disability, color, ethnicity, race, national origin or citizenship status. Massachusetts law embraces these laws and also prevents discrimination based on an employee’s sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status. Also, state laws dictate someone cannot be fired for his or her military status or arrest record.
Retaliation: The federal laws that deal with discriminatory practices also prohibit retaliation. This includes discharging, demoting, transferring or cutting the wages of workers who participate in discrimination hearings or otherwise press for their legal rights. These activities are considered protected and include filing discrimination claims, testifying in court or taking other steps to help stop discriminatory practices. Additionally, federal law prevents employers from terminating workers without cause for up to one year after they return from military service leave.
In Massachusetts, there are also laws in place preventing retaliation against workers for the following: filing an equal pay complaint, using leave afforded under the Family Medical Leave Act, filing a workplace safety complaint, satisfying their jury duty service or fulfilling their military service obligations. State law requires that employees who are members of the Reserve Armed Forces be reinstated to their positions and afforded the same pay and benefits after their leave.
Public Policy: Public policy exceptions prevent companies from ending workers’ employment if doing so violates established public policies in the state. For example, Massachusetts has laws in place that note that employees cannot be fired on the grounds that they filed a sexual harassment claim or a claim for workers’ compensation. Likewise, businesses are prohibited from firing workers because they refused to comply with an employer’s request to do something that is against the law.
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