This is a brief primer on “wrongful termination” under Washington state law. As always, the advice contained herein is for general educational purposes only. It should not be construed or acted upon as legal advice for your particular situation. You should consult with an attorney prior to acting on any information contained in this blog.
Generally, speaking employment is “at-will,” meaning an employer can terminate the employment relationship at any time for any reason.
However, this is not exactly true. Employers can agree to only terminate an employee for cause: then, if they terminate an employee without cause, they may be liable for breach of contract. So, if you were laid off and have an employment contract, review it and see if there is a “termination for cause” provision.
Moreover, various laws make it illegal to terminate an employee for various reasons: namely for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons. This means that if you believe your employer may have targeted you specifically for termination based on how you look, or who you are, or what you said, then you may have a valid discrimination or retaliation claim under the law.
In order to be protected from “wrongful termination” under Washington’s discrimination law, you must fall within a specified “protected class” of people. The list includes your gender, race, color, age, disability, religion, marital status, veteran status, and sexual orientation and/or identity.
The critical issue for any discrimination case is how to show that your “protected class” played a substantial factor in your termination. Obviously, most employers aren’t going to tell you that you are being fired because you are too old, etc. Most of the time, you have to show that the reason provided for your termination was false and untrue. You can also look at the people outside of your protected class and argue that such people were not fired even though they performed similarly or even worse. It will likely be important to get support from colleagues who can attest that the reason for your termination is false, etc.
Likewise, employers cannot fire you because you said something that is protected by law. For example, if you complain about workplace safety, or that a supervisor is discriminating against you or another employee, then you have likely engaged in “protected activity.” This means that your statements are protected under Washington law.
However, in addition to proving you engaged in “protected activity” you will also need to prove that the “protected activity” played a “substantial factor” in your termination. Again, proving causation means looking at the reason for the termination and proving it is false (unless the employer admits it is firing you because of your complaint).
If your believe you may have been fired because of a “protected activity” or because of your “protected class” then you should contact an employment attorney ASAP to see if he or she can help.