If you’ve been terminated without a warning or any advance notice, you might feel that your employer’s decision is unjust, unfair, or ill conceived—but is it illegal under New Jersey employment laws?
Employment at Will: Minimal Protection
New Jersey is an “employment at will” state, which means that private employers are free to terminate workers without cause, warning, notice, or severance. (Employees are also allowed to quit their jobs at any time, with or without notice.) Some employees are protected by collective bargaining agreements, entered into between unions and employers, that require more stringent processes or extend additional protections related to employee terminations. Other workers may enter into private contracts with employers that dictate the terms of employment and implement more restrictive conditions regarding termination of employment. Barring these special situations, however, most employees have “at will” status.
That doesn’t mean that an employee can be fired for just any reason, however. Certain characteristics are protected under federal laws and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), which make it illegal to discipline, fire, terminate, or retaliate against an employee because of these characteristics. Recognized protected characteristics include race, gender, religion, national origin, marital status, age, pregnancy, perceived or actual sexual orientation, disability, military status, and veteran status.
Example Illegal Reasons for Termination
There are many termination situations that are protected by federal and state laws against discrimination. For example, terminating an employee because of any of the following would likely run afoul of the law:
- Engaging in discussions with co-workers about the “terms and conditions of employment” that are protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), including discussions about wages, hours, and working conditions
- Refusing to disclose social media usernames and passwords or provide an employer with access to social media accounts through any other means
- Reporting a situation where they reasonably believe their employer is in violation of a law or is engaging in fraudulent or criminal practices
Example Permissible Causes for Termination
On the other hand, certain contentious issues are largely outside the protection of the anti-discrimination laws. Some situations that generally are not illegal reasons for termination include
- Posts on social media, including posts for social or political issues, that do not fall under the protection of the NLRA or other applicable laws
- Expressing your views on political issues such as religion, abortion, sexual orientation, parental or disability leave laws, or healthcare rights in a way that could be deemed harassing or discriminatory to employees based on gender, disability, or religion
- Interpersonal issues (i.e., a supervisor who just doesn’t like you)
Discrimination and Pretext
If you are fired without expressed cause, you may still have some recourse. You are entitled to seek redress with several different agencies or file a lawsuit and present evidence that a finder of fact could reasonably interpret to demonstrate the real reason for your termination. (For example, if you were given no cause for your termination but it occurred the day after you informed your supervisor you were pregnant.) The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a jury may find unlawful discrimination when a plaintiff shows that the employer's explanation for a termination or other adverse job decision is pretextual (i.e., not the real reason). A jury may conclude, if a complainant presents evidence that an employer lied, that the reason for the lies was to conceal an illegal motive even absent evidence of the improper motive itself. (For example, if you were fired for tardiness the day after you told your supervisor you were pregnant but the evidence shows you were not, in fact, tardy.)
Are You a Victim of Discrimination?
If you are discriminated against and terminated because of a protected characteristic, you may have several ways to pursue a claim, including initiating a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or filing a civil lawsuit in state or federal court. You may be able to pursue remedies including job reinstatement or other injunctive relief, back pay, interest on lost wages, compensatory damages related to pain and suffering and/or emotional distress, reasonable attorney’s fees, statutory fines, and possibly even punitive damages. Each of these different remedies has different requirements, and not all may be available in every case.
If you believe you have been the victim of an improper termination or other adverse employment action, consult with an experienced employment law attorney. The attorneys at the Mark Law Firm will evaluate your case and help you protect your rights and recover damages if appropriate. Contact us today to make an appointment.