Most of the time, firing comes unexpectedly. A terminated employee can become quickly burdened with many important questions and concerns: how to file for unemployment, find a new job, and to be able to pay the bills on time. However, it is also necessary to stop for a moment and reflect on whether your termination was lawful.
Today most employees are at-will, which means that one can be terminated for any reason as long as it is not against the law. The most well-known laws in this area are federal civil rights statutes: Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”). These acts prohibit discrimination in terms and conditions of employment on account of race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, sex, age and disability. Title VII and ADA apply to employers with 15 and more employees, and ADEA applies to those with 20 and more employees.
In addition to the federal laws, there is a Connecticut statute, often called the Fair Employment Practices Act, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46a-51 et seq. (“FEPA”). Unlike the federal statutes, FEPA prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and has a broader protection for individuals with disabilities. For example, whereas ADA covers individuals disabled in performance of a major life activity, FEPA covers individuals with chronic diseases. Furthermore, FEPA apply to employers with three and more employees.
The timeframe within which to file a discrimination-based complaint is very short—just 180 days. The complaints must first be filed with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (“CHRO”), a state agency which is in charge of investigating and adjudicating discrimination-related complaints. There is also an option to file a court action after the complaint has been pending with CHRO for a certain period of time.
Several state statutes also provide protection to individuals who have been terminated for participation in certain protected activities, such as testifying in unemployment proceedings (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-226a), filing a workers’ compensation claim (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-290a), or exercising a First Amendment right (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-51q). These statutes allow for either a direct court action or a hearing before the appropriate state agency.
Finally, over the last 25 years, Connecticut courts have been finding that certain terminations are unlawful because of public policy grounds. In a fundamental case of Sheets v. Teddy’s Frosted Foods, Inc., 179 Conn. 471 (1980), the employee, Mr. Sheets, was fired for insisting that the employer comply with the Connecticut Uniform Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. In particular, Mr. Sheets wanted to assure that Teddy’s Frosted Foods used standard materials for its finished products so that not to violate its label representations. The Connecticut Supreme Court held that such termination was a wrongful discharge as it violated public policy.
In Faulkner v. United Technologies Corp, Sikorsky Aircraft Div., 240 Conn. 576 (1997), the Connecticut Supreme Court held that the employee was wrongfully discharged when he refused to participate in a scheme to defraud the U.S. government by constructing helicopters with defective parts.
Protection has also been afforded to individuals terminated for demanding unpaid bonuses and wages earned, refusing to work in an unsafe environment, and reporting the statutory or common law violations of an employer to the authorities.
For more information, please contact Attorney David A. Baram.