Although most employment in the United States is "at will," federal and New Jersey state law provides some protections for workers against wrongful termination. Here's what you need to know about how to file a wrongful termination claim in New Jersey.
What Is At-Will Employment?
In all states except Montana, the default classification for a worker is at will. This means that neither the employer nor the worker has any obligation to continue the working relationship. An employer can terminate a worker for any legal reason or no reason at all, and an employee can quit without advance notice or notification.
There are a few exceptions to New Jersey at-will employment. These include:
- Some workers are protected by unions, which negotiate agreements with employers that set out the terms and conditions of members' employment. These contracts, called collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), generally include rules about terminating employees.
- Some workers have individual contracts of employment that create enforceable terms and penalties for workers and employers who prematurely end their employment relationship.
- Workers who are part of a mass layoff are protected by the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act of 1988 (the WARN Act) and New Jersey state laws. These laws require employers to give workers advance notice of layoffs and severance payments.
What Is Wrongful Termination?
Workers who are let go often feel like their termination was "wrongful," meaning it was unjustified or unfair. What is legally wrongful, however, is more specific. Wrongful termination usually involves discharging an employee in violation of state or federal law. It also describes termination in violation of an express contract (such as a CBA) or an implied contract (such as an employee handbook that provides enforceable terms governing termination).
NJ and Federal Law Prohibits Wrongful Discharge, Discrimination, and Retaliation
Federal and state laws protect New Jersey employees from wrongful termination and prohibit discrimination based on specific protected characteristics. The most prominent are Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), but there are many others. These laws protect individuals from discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, age, gender, sexual orientation, pregnancy, disability, and military status, among other characteristics. Protections are different under state and federal law and are supplemented frequently. If an employee is fired or demoted for reasons related to a protected characteristic, they may have a claim for wrongful termination.
Employees are also protected from retaliation for "blowing the whistle" on corruption, discrimination, or other wrongful acts in the workplace. This protection is relatively broad, but pursuing a claim can be complicated.
Pursuing and Proving a Wrongful Termination Claim
If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, you have a few options. You can file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights (DCR), depending on the nature of your claims. However, the amount and types of compensation you can recover through these agencies are limited. You may not be able to recover the full value of your claim.
To recover full compensation for your damages, you may need to file a lawsuit in state or federal court. While you can do this on your own (called pro se), a lawyer can help you understand the process and best prepare your case. Hiring an attorney can reduce the amount of time and stress you spend, and it usually increases the amount of your recovery.
To prove you were wrongfully terminated in a civil suit, you must produce evidence that shows you were terminated in violation of state or federal law (e.g., due to a discriminatory reason or for engaging in protected activity). It's not enough to merely claim wrongdoing. If you do not show adequate evidence, your case will be dismissed.
Sometimes, an employer will claim that an employee was fired for a lawful reason as a pretext for a discriminatory or illegal reason. Proving pretextual discrimination can be challenging. One way to do this is by showing that other workers who were not members of your protected group engaged in similar conduct but didn't receive the same punishment. Alternatively, you may present evidence that workers in protected groups were treated differently than non-protected groups. It can be very helpful to have an attorney if you need to compile evidence of this sort of pattern of discrimination.
Victim of Retaliation or Workplace Discrimination?
If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, don't drag your heels about contacting a lawyer. While there may be numerous ways to pursue a claim, there are also strict deadlines for beginning your claim. If you wait too long, you may not be able to recover anything. Talking to an experienced New Jersey employment attorney can help you understand your options and recover what you deserve.
 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq (1964)