Employment Discrimination

Can I be fired from my job for any reason?

Generally speaking, the answer is yes, you can be fired from your job for any reason. This conclusion stems from the age-old “employment-at-will” doctrine, which says that both sides of the employment relationship, be it employer or employee, can terminate the relationship for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason at all. Thus, a “bad” reason is, under this doctrine, an entirely acceptable reason. This doctrine has been around since before the United States was a country and the society in England was an agrarian one where people worked on farms for their livelihood. It survived the Industrial Revolution of the 1800’s and remains the basic law today. Most States, including Tennessee, have some form of the employment-at-will doctrine in their laws.

Are you saying that nobody can sue their employer if they get fired?

No. The employment-at-will doctrine may still be the law, but over the many years of its existence, it has been eroded to a degree. It usually determines the outcome of a case where the only evidence presented was that the employer did not have a legitimate reason for the termination of the employee. However, in Tennessee and other States, some important statutory exceptions have been enacted into the statutes, for example, an employer cannot fire an employee because the employee refused to remain silent about, or refused to engage in, illegal activities. Under Federal law, it is unlawful to fire (or otherwise discriminate against) an employee because of race, color, sex (including pregnancy), age, religion, or national origin, or to retaliate against an employee who complains of such discrimination, or to harass an employee for any of these reasons. It’s also against the law to pay unequal wages for equal work.

What if the employer gives a legitimate reason for firing me, but I feel that it was done because of the fact that, for example, I am a minority?

The cases are very rare in which an employer admits that an employee’s minority status was the reason it took the job action. This is referred to as “direct evidence”. Most of the time, the employer states as its reasons some apparently legitimate reason. It is the task of the employee to prove, usually by circumstantial evidence, that the reason is not legitimate.

What do you mean by “circumstantial evidence”?

Circumstantial evidence usually means, in unlawful or discriminatory termination cases, such facts as your minority status, that you were qualified for the job you held, that you were terminated, and that you were replaced by a person who was not a minority. Then, you would have to show that the employer’s reasons are not legitimate reasons.

How do you prove that the reason was not legitimate?

In general, you would have to prove that the reasons had no basis in fact, that the reasons did not truthfully motivate the termination, or that another employee (or other employees) not of your minority status engaged in “substantially identical” conduct as you did, but they were not fired or treated as you were treated.

What happens if I can prove all of this?

Generally speaking, the law gives you the right to take your employer to court and to request a jury trial. Successful plaintiffs may be entitled to back pay, reinstatement of employment with all job benefits, compensatory damages, interest, attorneys fees, and even punitive damages in egregious cases.

What is retaliation?

Generally, retaliation is bad treatment or discrimination that is motivated by the fact that the employee engaged in acts which are protected by the law. For example, it is unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee by firing the employee (or also, for example, to deny a promotion) because the employee made a complaint of discrimination.

What if I am being treated so badly at work that I just want to quit? Can I quit and still sue for discrimination?

Yes. The law makes it illegal for an employer to cause the working conditions of an employee to become so intolerable that the employee’s only option is to quit, if the employer’s motive in its actions is the employee’s status as, for example, a male, a female, an African-American, someone who is over 40 years of age, a Seventh Day Adventist, or someone from another nation.

Is everyone protected by the law from employment discrimination?

Every person’s racial, gender, age, religious, national origin, and disabled status, and those whose status is that they complained of such discrimination, is protected by the law.

Do the laws of Tennessee prohibit employment discrimination?

Yes. In general, both the State and Federal laws are applied and interpreted in similar fashion. The right exists to file a lawsuit in either State or Federal Court.

I feel like I am being unlawfully harassed at work, but I need my job and cannot afford to quit. If I complain about it, do I have to quit my job?

No. An employer has the legal obligation to investigate and remedy such complaints of harassment. But an employer is not obligated to investigate if it knows nothing about the problem. You should consider making a written complaint about the situation, and you should retain a copy of the complaint.

How does one file a complaint of discrimination?

You may file an administrative complaint by contacting the Tennessee Human Rights Commission or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Generally speaking, if you file a lawsuit in State Court, you must do so within a year of the date of the discrimination, and if you file in Federal Court, you must first file with the EEOC; that agency will issue you authorization to file the lawsuit.

EEOC’s toll free number is 800 669 4000.