When you're fired or laid off, it's only natural to feel like you've been treated unfairly — and to wonder whether you have legal recourse.
Unfortunately, treating employees unfairly isn't against the law. Ohio, like most states, is an at-will employment state, which means your employer is free to fire you for almost any reason at any time. Unless you have a contract (which most employees don't), you have limited protection from being fired.
However, at-will employment does have some exceptions. If you suspect you may have been wrongfully terminated, here's what you have to know.
There are three main exceptions to at-will employment in Ohio
While your employer is generally free to fire you for any reason, or for no reason at all, they cannot fire you for an illegal reason. There are three main categories of wrongful termination: discrimination, retaliation for a protected activity, and violations of public policy.
1. Illegal discrimination
Under federal and Ohio anti-discrimination laws, it's illegal for an employer to fire you on the basis of a protected characteristic. These characteristics include:
- Race, color, ethnicity, ancestry, or national origin
- Sex, gender, or sexual orientation
- Age (if you are over 40)
- Genetic information
- Military or veteran status, or caring for a close family member who was injured during military service
That said, it's often very difficult to prove that your employer's decision to fire you was based on a protected characteristic. Most employers will not simply come out and say "we fired you because of your disability" or similar. When there is no such "smoking gun," your attorney needs to use circumstantial evidence to show that discrimination was a factor in your termination. For instance, we may be able to show that your employer's policies had a disparate impact on employees of one gender, religion, or another protected trait.
2. Retaliation for a protected activity
Numerous state and federal laws prohibit your employer from firing you for exercising your legal rights. Some examples of such protected activities include:
- Requesting medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
- Requesting reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
- Filing a report of discrimination or harassment in good faith
- Reporting a workplace safety issue to OSHA
- Talking about your wages and benefits with coworkers (if you are not a manager)
- Cooperating with an EEOC investigation
- Filing a workers' compensation claim for an on-the-job injury
It's not enough to prove that you engaged in a protected activity and were subsequently fired; you need to prove that you were fired because of the protected activity. You may also have a wrongful termination claim if you were not explicitly fired, but subjected to such severe harassment in retaliation for the protected activity that you had no choice but to quit (we've covered this before in the context of "quiet firing").
3. Public policy violations
Ohio courts have also recognized wrongful termination claims based on certain violations of public policy. For instance, if you were fired for taking time off to vote, serve on a jury, or serve in the National Guard, you may have a viable wrongful termination claim.
What to do if you think you've been wrongfully terminated
There are two things you need to do if you've been wrongfully fired or are going to be wrongfully fired. First, document everything. Make sure you have written records of the discrimination or retaliation in a place your employer doesn't control. Get names and contact information for witnesses. It's also important to have copies of your performance reviews and other records so that you can prove your employer didn't have an unrelated reason to fire you (like poor job performance).
The second thing is to talk to a wrongful termination lawyer as soon as possible. Wrongful termination cases depend on a prompt investigation, and the legal deadlines that apply can vary widely depending on which laws were violated. Give us a call or contact us today to discuss your situation with an experienced attorney at Gibson Law, LLC.