Wrongful termination simply means you were fired in violation of a legal right. Tennessee is an at-will employment state, so an employee can be fired for no reason or even a bad reason. However, many exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine exist, some of which are below.
To be illegal, your termination must be tied to an unlawful reason, including:
- Retaliation because you:
- Opposed unlawful discrimination or harassment for yourself or a coworker
- Opposed wage violations, e.g., not being paid overtime
- Requested reasonable accommodations for your disability, religion, etc.
- Requested or took protected leave (FMLA, TMLA, Military, etc.)
- Reported or complained of fraudulent billing of the state or federal government (Medicare/Medicaid/TennCare/federal or state agency)
- Testified in court or served jury duty
- Submitted a claim for Worker’s Compensation
- Discrimination based on your:
- Sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and sexual identity)
- National origin
- Age (40 or over)
- Genetic information
- Violation of Leave of Absence Rights (FMLA / TMLA / USERRA)
- Family and Medical Leave Act
- Tennessee Maternity Leave Act
- Breach of Contract
- Employment Contract
- Collective Bargaining Agreement
- Other Violations
- Against Public Policy
Whether or not you need to consult with an employment lawyer may depend on whether: (1) You were fired; (2) You are still employed; or (3) You quit your job. Read the guidance below for your particular situation.
- You Were Fired
If you were recently fired, follow these five steps to protect your legal rights. If you have been offered a severance package, see our Severance Agreements page.
- Do not lash out. You are probably seeing red and want revenge. But do NOT:
- send rude texts or e-mails to your boss or co-workers
- threaten to sue your former employer
- vent on social media (do not post or tweet at all about your work situation)
Such negative communications will be used by the company’s lawyers to paint you in a negative light in front of a judge and jury.
- Do not sign anything. Your employer may present you with a severance (aka separation) agreement. Do not sign it until you can have an employment lawyer review the specific facts of your case. Ask for a day to review it and then immediately contact an employment lawyer. For more information on severance agreements, see our Severance Review page.
- Collect potential evidence. E-mails, text messages, company policies or procedures, company handbook, paystubs, employment agreement (if applicable), and any other documents you believe are relevant. Tennessee is a one-party consent state, meaning you can potentially record a conversation without your employer’s knowledge, just be aware of company policy to the contrary (especially in sensitive industries where trade secrets abound). Under the Tennessee Employment Security Law, the company is required to give you a copy of your separation notice within 24 hours.
- Do not steal anything from the employer. This may seem obvious, but you may not even realize you’re potentially breaking the law. Do not engaged in “self-help” discovery by taking documents or accessing information to which you have no right to possess. Doing so could potentially hurt your employment law claims and expose you to counterclaims for breach of contract as well as violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), the Tennessee Personal and Commercial Computer Act of 2003, and the Store Wire and Electronic Communications Act. Although the scope of the CFAA is under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, you would be wise to err on the side of caution. Your lawyer can always use formal discovery to request documents later, if needed.
- Immediately contact an employment lawyer. Ignorance is not bliss; what you do not know can legally harm you.
Contact a Nashville employment lawyer for a free and confidential legal consultation at 615-823-1737 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Do not lash out. You are probably seeing red and want revenge. But do NOT:
- You are Still Employed – Submit a Written Complaint
Unfortunately, employment laws are largely ineffective at stopping ongoing workplace issues. These laws are better at seeking justice after the fact. And from a practical perspective, adding a lawyer into a precarious employment situation can make things worse because you will have a target on your back. In addition, a substantial component of damages in an employment lawsuit consists of lost wages. In most circumstances, if you are still employed then you are not incurring lost wages.
If you are still employed and believe your legal rights are being violated, follow these 4 steps:
- Send a respectful, written complaint. Work e-mail is fine but include relevant dates and immediately print off a copy. In the complaint, be helpful and professional, offer solutions to the problem, and do not threaten.
- Be specific. Narrow down the key facts. Do not submit an excessively long complaint.
- Avoid legal conclusions. Do not say “this is illegal discrimination.” You can say the same thing with more tact: “I feel like I’m being treated differently because of my [protected characteristic such as gender, race, age, etc.]….” The latter is not a legal conclusion and it is sufficient without being overly aggressive.
- Send your complaint to the right person. Follow the company’s reporting procedures or if the company does not have a reporting policy use your best judgment (usually human resources).
Remember, your first priority should be to stop the discrimination or harassment and keep your job at least until you find a better one. But if you are reading this you probably see the writing on the wall and are about to be terminated.
In that case, you want to lay a solid foundation for any potential legal claims. Even if you don't end up in court, you need to have a case that a judge could find credible in order for your employer to consider settling the claim in your favor. Therefore, you should take two additional steps:
- Gather Documents
Gather and organize all of the documents that you can find concerning your employment, including:
- Pay stubs
- Text messages
- Audio recordings
- E-mails (including ones that show the employer’s receipt of your complaint)
- Performance evaluations
- Disciplinary warnings, reprimands, or write-ups
- Job description
- Awards, accolades, or other evidence that shows you performed well
- Attendance records
- Employee handbook, manual, or other documents describing work rules, policies, and procedures
- Pension benefits and retirement plan information, including monthly statements, including any ESOP plan materials
Do not engaged in “self-help” discovery by taking documents or accessing information to which you have no right to possess. Doing so could potentially hurt your employment law claims and expose you to legal liability. Your lawyer can obtain copies of such documents through the discovery process later, if necessary.
- Identify witnesses
If you think co-workers observed your wrongful treatment, make a list of their names, e-mail addresses, and telephone numbers, and include a summary of what you expect them to say (good and bad). Specific and detailed information related to unlawful harassment, discrimination, or retaliation is always better than general misgivings about a supervisor or work environment.
Remember, your lawyer needs to know all facts surrounding your termination. The bad facts will eventually come out, and the sooner your lawyer knows about them the better.
- You Quit Your Job (Constructive Discharge)
Some people who quit their jobs want to know if they can sue their former employers. An employee who quits can sue in some circumstances. To do so, your lawyer must prove that you were “constructively discharged.”
Constructive discharge occurs when an employer deliberately creates intolerable working conditions, as perceived by a reasonable person, and it did so with the intention to force you to quit. In other words, you must prove that the employment relationship ended against your will. In the eyes of the law, constructive discharge is the same as being terminated. The truth is that constructive discharge is a difficult legal standard to meet. Judges and juries tend to be inherently skeptical of such cases.
What happens if you cannot prove that you were constructively discharged? You will be denied certain types of monetary damages such as lost wages. This reduces the value of your case and may also hinder your ability to recover other types of damages.
However, if you think your circumstances are extraordinary contact an employment lawyer serving Nashville for a free and confidential legal consultation at 615-823-1737 or email@example.com.
The value of a given case varies significantly based on many factors, most of which are outside of your control, including the severity of the discrimination, how much money you have lost in earnings and benefits (if terminated), the type and quality of evidence, whether or not you reported the discrimination, and if the harasser or company have discriminated against people in the past.
But there are four general categories of damages in employment cases:
- Lost wages and benefits (your former weekly earnings + value of employer-paid benefits x the number of weeks you have been out of work)
- Compensatory* (emotional pain and suffering resulting from the discrimination)
- Punitive* (to punish and deter the employer for its discriminatory acts in especially bad cases)
- Attorney’s fees and expenses if you go to trial and win
* Note that compensatory and punitive damages are capped under federal and Tennessee law based on the size of the company as follows:
- 8-14 employees ($25,000)
- 15-100 employees ($50,000)
- 101-200 employees ($100,000)
- 201-500 employees ($200,000)
- 501 or more employees ($300,000)