What is Wrongful Termination?

All terminations may be “wrongful” in the mind of the fired employee in the sense that it was “wrong” and unfair for the employer to fire them.  But not all terminations are necessarily “wrongful” in a legal sense.

Iowa is an “at-will employment” state.  That means that the employment relationship can be ended without prior notice or warning by the employer or the employee at any time and for any reason.  This usually comes up for employees who have been fired.  There is no general requirement that an employer have “good cause” before firing an employee.  Nor is the employee entitled to any warnings that the employee’s job is in danger before being fired.  There is no law that requires an employer to investigate the employee before making a termination decision or provide a written explanation of the reasons for the firing.

Iowa’s courts have carved out two general exceptions to the at-will employment law under which the termination may be wrongful.  The most frequent exception is that an employee cannot be fired if the termination is in violation of public policy.  That public policy commonly comes from state statutes or court decisions.  The courts usually refer to such an employee as “protected,” meaning that the employee has done something that the employee has a right to do and is insulated from termination for engaging in that right.  Examples of such protected activity include filing a workers’ compensation claim, unemployment claims, wage and overtime claims, and providing truthful testimony during a legal proceeding brought by another employee.

The other exception to the at-will employment rule is for an employee who has an employment agreement that sets forth the circumstances and manner in which the employee can be fired.  In those cases, the employment contract will control on the question of whether the termination was wrongful.

There are other situations  in which an employee’s termination may lead to liability against the employer.  Of course, under various state and federal civil rights laws, it is illegal for an employer to fire someone because of that person’s sex, race, nationality, sexual orientation, age, disability, or pregnancy.  There are also statutes that govern terminations in specific situations, such as employee drug and alcohol testing.

If you have questions about employment law or labor law, contact Erbe Law Firm today.

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