Employment Law

What constitutes wrongful termination in Washington state?

By January 26, 2021No Comments

Wrongful termination is a legal phrase that means that an employer fired an employee and broke a law in the process. There are some federal laws that concern wrongful termination, but each state also has its own rules and regulations for wrongful termination.

In states like Washington that have at-will employment, an employer can terminate employment for any reason or even for no reason at all, as long as their intent is not driven by discriminatory or retaliatory motive. 

What constitutes a discriminatory termination in Washington state?

Discrimination is unjust or prejudicial treatment of someone, and it is prohibited by federal law that protect employees within certain classes. 

These protected classes include:

  • Race
  • National origin
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Pregnancy
  • Age, for employees 40 and older
  • Genetic information
  • Disability
  • Citizenship status
  • Family Medical Leave

These class designation are not an automatic insulating factor against discrimination.  The reach of the law is limited by definition specific to many factors, such as the size of the employer (number of employees), the tenure of the employee (how long they have been employed); the type of employee (full or part time); the type of employment or job description itself. 

These factors need to be assessed in any employment discrimination case under federal law. 

Additionally, federal law protects employees 

The state of Washington adds some additional protections against discrimination for the following types of employees:

  • Marital status
  • Status as a victim of domestic violence
  • Sexual orientation
  • HIV or AIDS status
  • Gender identity
  • Use of a service animal
  • Membership in the state militia
  • Hepatitis C infection
  • Medical Leave

Washington employers are required to comply with all laws against employment discrimination if they have eight or more employees. However, as with the federal law, exceptions do exist depending on the circumstances. Again, each case must be individually assessed. 

In short, if you are a member of a protected class, and feel like you are being treated differently / unfairly because you are a member of that class, you are likely experiencing discrimination. 

If you believe this may be happening to you, call an attorney, or reach out to the Employment Equal Opportunity Commission, or Washington State Human Rights Commission to determine your best course of action.

Retaliation is strictly forbidden

Another protected area of your employment is your ability to freely exercise your rights and without fear of reprisal. 

The law protects employees from retaliation when:

  • Participating in a discrimination investigation;
  • Making a claim of discrimination in the workplace;
  • Testifying in court against your employer;
  • Filing a complaint with Human Resources;
  • Putting forth the effort to end discrimination in your office;
  • Reporting illegal or unsafe activity;
  • Engaging in union activity;
  • Using protected leave;

Workplace retaliation has many faces.  It is grounded in the common sense –  an employer or company leader cannot take negative action against an employee who engages in protected activity, such as filing a formal complaint about workplace discrimination or harassment. 

Under most circumstances it is unlawful for an employer or other company leader to respond to a report of harassment or discrimination in a disciplinary or inappropriate manner. 

Common responses from a manager that may constitute workplace retaliation are: 

  • Suspension or termination;
  • Demeaning or abusive verbal attacks;
  • Isolating or shunning to make the employee’s work environment feel unsafe or uncomfortable; 
  • Micromanagement;
  • Demotion, transfer, or any other change in status or hanges in the terms and conditions of employment;
  • Negative performance reviews; 

If you believe your employer or supervisors have retaliated against you for taking part in a protected activity, you can pursue a claim against them in civil court. 

If you believe you are suffering retaliation or have been wrongfully terminated in retaliation for engaging in protected activity, you should call an attorney immediately.

There are certain steps you must follow to file a wrongful termination lawsuit, including reporting discrimination and retaliation to the state’s Human Rights Commission and/or the EEOC.

An attorney will be able to review your claim, advise on whether or not it’s valid, and provide the best next steps for your case.

Breach of contract wrongful termination

A final category of behavior that could constitute wrongful termination in Washington state is a breach of contract. 

While most employees in Washington are employed at will, some have a specific employment agreement or contract. These contracts can provide some added job security and make it illegal for your employer to fire you without cause.

Additionally, your employee handbook could have important information in it that could show that you were wrongfully terminated. A handbook could outline that employees are only let go for misconduct or violations.

In that case, termination for poor performance could be considered illegal since the employer sets certain expectations in your employee handbook.

Washington wrongful termination attorneys

The Gilbert Law Firm has extensive experience working with victims of wrongful termination. We offer a free consultation so we can get to know you, your case, and the circumstances around your wrongful termination. 

You have rights as an employee and can seek compensation when an employer violates those rights. Get in contact with us to learn how to pursue a wrongful termination lawsuit.

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