The most common legal questions I am asked relate to employment disputes. As more and more people lose their jobs during this downturn in our economy, I receive even more emails or calls on this issue. Many of the folks who call believe they were fired because of their race, color, religion, or sex. This article focuses on some of the issues involved in an employment discrimination dispute.
Q: I was just fired for failing to adhere to the company’s employee manual. Can they fire me for that?
A: Yes. Your employer can fire you for almost anything. Come into the office with red color shoes that offend your boss and she can fire you. Show up everyday on time, stay late, get the job done, etc. and your boss can fire you. In short, your employer can fire you for any reason or no reason and the law protects them.
Q: Why is the law this way?
A: This policy is called the at-will employment doctrine. What it means is that employment in our state is at will – you can quit or be fired at anytime. The theory is that it allows business to quickly adjust to market forces. Many argue this policy is even more important today than in the past because the world has become a global marketplace. Others argue this policy is unfair to workers.
Q: Well, my supervisor told me he was firing me for not following the employee handbook but I think he fired me because I am black? Can he do that?
A: Now that is a different story. Remember I said your employer could fire you for almost any reason or none at all? Well, you have hit on one exception to this rule. An employer can not fire an employee because of their race, color, religion, sex, or nationality – with very few exceptions.
Q: What do I do then about my complaint?
A: Unlike many disputes, your first step in this case may not be seeking out a lawyer. The law gives broad protections for victims of discrimination but it has some catches. The first catch is that you have to allow the government to investigate your claim first. The second catch is that you only have a matter of months to report your claim.
Q: Who do I report my claim to?
A: Here you have an option. You can contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Texas Commission on Human Rights. The EEOC is a branch of the federal government whereas the later is part of your state government. You may contact either or both (I recommend both) and doing so will satisfy your time requirement. You can make this contact on your own but some people hire a lawyer for this, just in case a lawsuit is filed later.
Q: What will those agencies do for me?
A: They will assign an investigator to your case. This person will interview you and others to determine if they want to prosecute your case. Most of the time, they will not want to pursue you case. You should not take this as a rejection of what you say. The governments’ decision in this regard is more a function of their limited resources than the quality of your case.
Q: What if they do not want to take my case?
A: After your case has been rejected, you will be sent what is called a “right-to-sue letter.” This letter allows you to go out and hire a private attorney to pursue your claim and perhaps get you money damages.
Q: Will the government pay for this lawyer?
A: Unfortunately, no. You will be on your own to hire the lawyer but many of them will take employment cases on a contingency fee – in other words, they only get paid if you win. You can contact me for a referral if you would like. Also, you should move quickly to engage a lawyer as you only have a limited time to file your claim.
Q. What can the lawyer do to help?
A. The lawyer can file a lawsuit against the company seeking lost pay, expenses, and attorneys fees. If you find a lawyer who will take your case on a contingency, you probably have a case with some likelihood of success.
Q. What kind of evidence do I need to win?
A. As with any case, the more witnesses the better. Hopefully, people have heard the manager make racial slurs to you or others. It is always good to find another employee who has been fired for discrimination. Also, your testimony is important. Try to remember any racial statement made to you. Finally, you must consider the reason they gave for firing you. Does it have any merit? Even if an employer does not like your race, they can fire you for not doing your job or failing to follow company policy. You should make sure you have a witness or two who will vouch for your work ethic because you can bet that it will be an issue. Good luck.