What is a "wrongful" termination

The term, “wrongful termination” is the most commonly misunderstood legal term in employment law after “harassment.”  (See the article "What is illegal harassment in employment?") The legal definition of “wrongful termination” is much narrower than most think.

To an employee, a termination may be “wrongful” in the employer’s reasoning for the termination did not make sense, if it was based on a mistake by the employer, favoritism, misplaced blame, or if the termination was no fault of the employee’s.

As an illustration, Sally the Salesperson, works for the national retailer K-Smart. One day on the sales floor, Sally’s coworker, Arnie, places incorrect bar codes on numerous pieces of merchandise. As a result of Arnie’s blunder, dozens of items sell for less than full retail value. Unfortunately, K-Smart management incorrectly blames Sally, and not Arnie, for the lost revenue. Sally is then fired.  

Sally may describe her termination as a wrongful termination. After all, it was Arnie’s mistake, not Sally’s. Morally, Sally is correct in labeling her termination as “wrongful”. However, Sally’s termination doesn’t actually meet the legal definition of a wrongful termination.

Legally, a wrongful termination is a termination that violates the law or a government policy. The most common wrongful terminations are those based on discrimination or harassment because of a "protected characteristic". This includes terminations based on age (if over 40), ancestry, color, disability or “health” discrimination, gender, gender identity, military and veteran status, marital status, national origin, race, religion, and sexual orientation. Other policies prohibit retaliation against whistle blowers--employees who have reported illegal acts. There are dozens of government policies that may constitute a wrongful termination.

However, there is probably no policy that legally prohibits K-Smart from incorrectly firing Sally for the negligence and mistake of a co-worker. Therefore, Sally was not “wrongfully terminated” in the legal sense of the term.

As an illustration of a wrongful termination that would meet the legal definition, let’s slightly twist the illustration with Sally the Salesperson described above. Imagine that Sally the Salesperson is five-months pregnant. Even though Sally is pregnant, she is still performing the same duties and working the same number of hours at K-Smart as she did pre-pregnancy. However, upon discovery of the incorrect bar codes, Sally’s supervisor, Johnny, tells K-Smart Human Resources, “It was probably Sally’s mistake. Sally is pregnant and has baby brain. She can’t think straight and shouldn’t be working anyways.” Sally is then fired from K-Smart.

Under these facts Sally has been wrongfully terminated in the legal sense of the term. Johnny’s statements about Sally’s performance are direct evidence that Sally’s termination was motivated by her pregnancy; a legally protected characteristic. K-Smart has violated California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act’s prohibitions against pregnancy discrimination in employment. Under these facts, Sally does have a case of wrongful termination of employment.

Do you think you were wrongfully terminated? Do you know someone who was? If so, visit or call Brian Mathias Law for a phone consultation. Ready to stand up for your rights?