Being terminated from a job is never easy or pleasant. Obviously, if termination occurs, there is friction and disagreement between the parties involved. Depending on the circumstances, this tension can make the termination seem arbitrary or unfair to the affected employee. In these instances, an employee may wonder if their termination was somehow “wrongful” or, to be more exact, against the law. In Colorado, there is a legal presumption that all employment relationships are “at-will” unless specified otherwise.
At-will employment means that the employer or employee can end the relationship at any time and for any reason not prohibited by law. It is common for many employers to lay out this at-will employment relationship in employee handbooks and employment policy documents. As a result, even though a terminated employee might have been discharged under unfair or unjust circumstances, the at-will employment doctrine, in many cases, prevents them from making any claim against their former employer.
That being said, not all terminations are legal. There are exceptions to the at-will doctrine that will make an employer liable for wrongful termination, particularly in instances where state or federal law prohibit discharge for specific reasons.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other federal statutes make it illegal for any employee to be terminated on the basis of race, sex, disability, national origin and more. In practice, this means that an employer is not only unable to terminate an at-will employee because of their race, sex, etc., it also means that an at-will employee can not be terminated for:
An employee who has been fired from their job because of a reason prohibited under federal law can be said to have been wrongfully terminated. In such a case, the employee will have a right to sue their employer for this wrongful termination under the statute in question.
Like federal law, Colorado law also prohibits the termination of an employee for prohibited reasons, including not only race, gender, national origin, etc., but also sexual orientation. Also, like federal law, Colorado has made it illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee for participating in specifically protected activities. A termination based on a prohibited reason, or for participation in a protected activity, would be considered wrongful and would give rise to an action against the employer by the impacted at-will employee.
Colorado law also provides wrongful termination protection to public and private employees in the following situations:
While at-will employment is the rule, an employer and employee are still free to negotiate any terms of employment, as long as those terms do not violate Colorado law or public policy. If there is an express written contract regarding terms of employment between the parties, then a breach of that contract may give rise to a wrongful termination action if the following factors exist:
In addition, an employer’s verbal or written statements or usual way of doing business can give rise to an implied contract between the parties, even when no written contract exists. For example, an employee handbook may specify progressive discipline measures prior to termination, or that termination will only occur for cause. If termination then occurs in the absence of progressive discipline or cause, then an action for wrongful termination can arise in the same manner as if an express contract was in place.
An at-will employee who is fired in violation of an established Colorado policy will have been wrongfully terminated if the following factors exist:
Because wrongful termination cases necessarily involve a loss of employment, lost wages make up the lion’s share of any damages awarded. An employee may also recover lost benefits, emotional distress damages, and punitive damages, if applicable and, in some cases, attorney fees and the costs associated with bringing suit.
Wrongful termination law is complex, and employers will often make every effort to fight the charges made against them. At Marathon Law, LLC, we use our knowledge of wrongful termination law and our experience in these cases to get the results that our clients deserve. Contact us for a free, confidential consultation at 303-704-1222, or via our website contact page.