Most employers provide a “legitimate” reason for terminating an employee, whether it's actually why you were fired or not. For example, your employer might say you are being fired for poor performance, to cut costs, for misconduct, or as part of a company reorganization.
But what if the company hired someone at a higher salary to replace you after telling you your job was being eliminated? What if your employer suddenly decided your performance was declining only days after you revealed your pregnancy? In these situations, or any other in which you suspect that your employer's real reason for firing you was illegitimate, you might have a legal claim against your employer.
So, does it make sense for you to hire a lawyer to sue an employer who fired you for cause? An initial consultation with an employment lawyer can answer that question.
What a Lawyer Can Do
You might be angry, frustrated, even hurt after your employer fires you. These emotions are natural. But they don't necessarily mean you should file a lawsuit. A lawyer can help you sort out facts from feelings, and decide how to proceed.
How can a lawyer help you if your employer claims it fired you for, say, coming in late a few times? Even if you were in fact late, that may not be the end of the story.
Explore Whether the Termination was Illegal
An employment lawyer will explore the context of what happened, as well as the details of your termination. For example, if you were fired for coming in late, was every other employee on time every day? If not, did the employer possibly hold you to a different standard for an illegal reason (disability, say, or recent medical leave)?
The lawyer will also ask you about the reasons you were late. Was it because you overslept after partying well into the night? Or, is difficulty waking up a side-effect from medication you take for a serious health condition? If the employer knew about the medication side-effect, it may be liable for firing you for tardiness rather than working with you to accommodate your condition. (For more information about wrongful termination claims, see Wrongful Termination: Was Your Firing Illegal?)
Lay Out Your Options
Another benefit of seeing a lawyer even if you were fired for cause is learning your rights and your options. The lawyer can lay out all of the legal and other strategies available to you. For example, the lawyer can identify resources for you to look into, such as:
- state or local agencies where you have to file complaints in order to preserve legal rights
- a state labor department where you can seek unpaid wages or overtime, or
- the state unemployment department where you can file for benefits.
The attorney will also tell you what services she can offer you. These may include assisting you with filings at the agencies mentioned above, sending a letter to your employer seeking severance pay or settlement of claims, or filing a lawsuit.
The lawyer may tell you that your only option is to file for unemployment and move on. This may not seem like a benefit, but it is.
Help You Move On
One of the main services an employment lawyer provides to you after you’ve been fired is to listen carefully to your story and give you an objective, professional evaluation of your potential case. The lawyer may not tell you what you want to hear (“you have a slam-dunk case!”), but you should leave the meeting satisfied that you have explored your legal options rather than just accepting the employer’s word on the termination. And, you can make informed decisions about your future armed with the advice of the lawyer. This can be part of a process of moving on from the anger and even grief of the termination to the next phase of your career.
To make an informed decision about how to move forward, you'll need to evaluate the costs of taking legal action versus the possible benefit of doing so. If the lawyer tells you that your termination violated the law in some way (for example, because the employer refused to accommodate your health condition), he or she will also tell you in general what you could possibly recover by suing your employer or attempting to settle your claims before litigation.
The lawyer will explain how attorney fees are calculated. Attorney fee amounts differ based on what action you and the lawyer decide to take because some procedures take longer or are more difficult than others. For example, the lawyer may offer to write a letter to your ex-employer to find out if it is possible to settle your claims without having to file a lawsuit. This might take only a few hours of attorney time, while a full-blown lawsuit will take hundreds of attorney hours.
The lawyer will also talk to you about fee structures. The lawyer may ask for a retainer fee (an amount paid up front to secure the attorney’s services) and/or an hourly fee. Or, the lawyer may offer to represent you on a contingent fee basis, which means that the lawyer receives a portion of whatever money is paid by the employer (either through settlement or after a jury award).
Lawsuits are expensive and costs are a big part of the reason. Costs are expenses other than attorney’s fees, such as filing fees, photocopy costs, deposition fees, expert witness fees, and the like. The lawyer should explain who will pay costs and give a rough estimate of what they will run. If the employer can be required to pay your costs if you win (as is true under some statutes), the lawyer will tell you that, too.
Make an Informed Decision
Even if you have legal grounds to sue your employer, you may decide no to after the lawyer explains what you can possibly recover under the best case scenario and what you will have to pay to win that recovery in court. And, all lawsuits are risky because they can be thrown out by the judge, witnesses may lie or just fail to persuade the jury, and juries can be unpredictable. The risk of losing is yet another factor that the lawyer will help you assess when you are doing your cost/benefit analysis.
Once you have gone over all of these factors with an employment lawyer, you can make an informed decision about whether or not you want to hire the lawyer to challenge your termination in some way.