Do I Have a Case for Wrongful Termination (in Arizona)?
As an employee in Arizona, you work at will. This means that an employer may fire you for any legal reason or for no reason in particular. However, you may not be fired for a reason that is illegal. Some protections for employees are granted under federal law, and some under Arizona law. This brief treatment of the issue of wrongful termination will hopefully help reassure you that you do have rights and protections that are worth exploring. Just keep in mind that a short article is insufficient to cover the full length and breadth of all laws relevant to wrongful termination. A competent attorney that specializes in employment law would be an invaluable resource to you in determining a basis for a wrongful termination claim, and assessing the strength of your case under Arizona and/or Federal law.
If you feel that you have been fired for a reason related to your race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age, disability, citizenship status, genetic information, military service or HIV/AIDS status, you may have grounds for a legal claim since these are characteristics protected by Arizona and/or Federal law. Keep in mind, that beyond discrimination on the basis of the characteristics protected by law, employers may potentially discriminate, without incurring legal liability, even for characteristics that may be unrelated to job performance. A remarkably proficient cashier, for example, who is fired for the habit of relocating his chewing gum to the bridge of his nose while conversing with customers, may have difficulty finding immunity, for this behavior, under any of the characteristics specified by discrimination law. However, even in this lighthearted example, it’s important to recognize that illegal discriminatory behavior is all too frequently cloaked, by an employer, in stated reasons that are benign. If you suspect that you have been targeted for termination for reasons related to one or more protected characteristics, your instincts may be attuned to subtle cues that are worth your time and attention to explore.
Some Arizona and/or Federal laws, particularly discrimination laws, may not apply to all employers equally. For many of the protected characteristics, employers must have 15 or more employees before the law applies to them. In cases involving citizenship status discrimination, employers with four or more employees can be held accountable for discriminatory behavior. Protections under federal law that make provisions for employees to take time off to serve in the armed forces, apply to all employers, regardless of the number of employees. (Arizona law provides similar protections for members of the National Guard.)
Minimum Wage and Overtime.
Most people are aware of a few aspects of Arizona minimum wage and overtime regulations. Less well-known are the little tricks employers sometimes engage in, to avoid full compliance with the law. For instance, if you were fired after asking for a raise, it might be worth taking a quick look at how your compensation was structured. Some employers will pay an employee a salary, and attach the label of “manager” to the employee’s job description, hoping to skirt the minimum wage and/or overtime regulations. However, in 2015, by executive order, President Obama changed the threshold for a salaried employee to be considered exempt from overtime wages. The threshold was raised from $23,700 to $50,400. So, if your salary with your employer was less than $969 per week, and you consistently worked more than 40 hours per week, it may be that asking for a raise was essentially you requesting that your employer comply with the law.
Misclassification as Independent Contractor.
In another scenario, (another unsuccessful attempt, by some employers, to land in a loophole), if you were being paid as an “independent contractor,” and your only “client” was your employer, and you worked according to a schedule set by the employer, and used the employer’s tools, facilities and protocols for the work performed, these elements suggest that it may have been more appropriate for the employer to have hired you as an employee rather than an independent contractor. It’s possible that your employer is attempting to avoid FICA payroll taxes and perhaps minimum wage and/or overtime pay regulations as well.
You have a right to ask that your legal rights be honored. This may be the most important concept that we convey to you in this article. Your employer may not terminate your employment or take any disciplinary action against you for attempting to exercise your rights.
You cannot legally be fired for filing a workman’s compensation claim. Your employer cannot take action against you if you ask for better compliance with the law in maintaining and promoting safety within the workplace. (A very helpful list of safety-related employer responsibilities can be found at www.osha.gov.) Your employer must allow for time off according to the provisions in the law that protect jury duty, your right to vote, military leave (including National Guard under Arizona law), victim leave (for court proceedings if you have been the victim of a crime), and family and medical leave. All of these protections have specific parameters and provisions that may or may not apply to your specific circumstances.
We’ve discussed discrimination laws, compensation-related laws, workman’s comp, and laws that protect your employment while you take time off for protected activities. A final aspect of your recently-terminated employment to consider, in determining if the termination was legal, is the question of contracts that may exist between you and your employer. An employer may form contracts with an employee, promising things such as job security, specific compensation, and so forth. These contracts are sometimes written, but can also be created orally or even implied through specific actions or inactions. An employee manual, for example, sometimes outlines specific actions that the employer will take if an employee’s performance is deemed to be unacceptable. If this employer then skips some of the steps outlined in the manual and simply fires an employee “for failing to perform adequately,” it may be argued that the employee manual first created an agreement – an implied contract – between the employer and all employees (for whom the manual was written), and that the employer then breached this agreement, by not following the per-termination steps prescribed therein. As you can see, this final question is less about researching the laws that govern all employer-employee relations in Arizona, and more about remembering/recognizing the specific written, oral and implied agreements that took place within your organization.
Seek out an Attorney.
We understand how painful the loss of employment can be, especially under circumstances of wrongful termination. Asserting your rights can take courage and resilience. If you believe that you have been illegally discriminated against, or fired for merely exercising your rights or for making a report related to a violation of the law, we are confident that meeting with a Mesa Arizona business attorney at Denton Petersen, PC will provide valuable perspective on what your options may be.
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Mesa, AZ 85213
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