What Is a “Wrongful Termination” in Arizona?
Arizona is an “at-will” employment state. This means an employer can terminate you for any reason or no reason, except an unlawful reason. If you are terminated for an unlawful reason, then you may have a claim for wrongful termination. If, on the other hand, you are terminated for no reason or a lawful reason, you do not have a claim for wrongful termination.
So, what are some unlawful reasons to terminate an employee? It is not possible to discuss all of the unlawful reasons for termination in a short article, so I will focus on the most common reasons.
It is unlawful to terminate an employee because of his or her race, gender, age, disabilities, national origin, color of their skin, or pregnancy. It is also unlawful to terminate an employee because they complained about such discrimination.
In Arizona, it is unlawful to terminate an employee who has reported to management a concern that someone in the organization is violating an Arizona statute or the Arizona Constitution. Such employees are often referred to as “whistleblowers.” The employee need not cite any specific law when reporting the issue to management, but he or she must provide a general description of the conduct when reporting their concerns.
It may also be unlawful to terminate an employee who reports that the employer is violating a federal law. There are, however, at least 45 different federal laws that protect whistleblowers. Each is very specific in terms of how the employee must blow the whistle to receive protections under the law. You should be careful when blowing the whistle on what you consider to be a violation of a federal law.
"Good Cause" Agreements
Some employees have written agreements that state they can only be fired for “good cause” or “cause.” What constitutes “cause” is defined in the employment agreement. If an employee has this kind of agreement and they are fired without cause, the employee may bring a wrongful termination claim based on breach of their written contract. It is becoming less common in Arizona for an employee to have this kind of contract, but they do exist.
Members of a union may also have a collective bargaining agreement that limits the circumstances under which they can be terminated. You should be sure to review any collective bargaining agreement because you may have rights pursuant to that agreement that would make your termination wrongful.
Many employees tell me that their supervisor is a “jerk.” He or she hyper scrutinized their work for months and “manufactured” a reason to terminate them for “poor performance” or a “bad attitude.” They tell me that other employees have made the same mistakes or do things the same way, and they have not been terminated. They feel they were subjected to a “hostile work environment” and wrongfully terminated for no real reason.
This kind of behavior is not unlawful, unless the supervisor’s motives are unlawful. You must show that your supervisor is treating you poorly because of the one or more of the reasons discussed above. If your supervisor doesn’t like you because of some personality difference or you don’t know why you are being singled out, then you likely don’t have a claim for wrongful termination. It is perfectly legal in Arizona for your supervisor to be a “jerk,” unless he or she is acting that way because of one of the enumerated reasons discussed above.
If you are not sure whether your termination was lawful, you should consult an experienced employment attorney. You should also consult an attorney to make sure you understand all of the terms of any settlement agreement that you may be given upon separation. Many agreements contain pages of “legalese” that can be difficult to understand. Be careful before signing any such agreement because you are presumed to have read and understood it, and there can be serious consequences for breaching the agreement.
About the Author: Jeffrey Silence is a partner at the Phoenix law firm of Jaburg Wilk. He advises employees who believe they have been wrongfully terminated and pursues legal action if warranted. He also advises employers when terminating employees and defends them when they are sued. This gives him a unique perspective. His primary goal no matter who he represents is to find creative solutions to solve problems.
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