What Evidence Do I Need for a Wrongful Termination Case?

Work isn’t always a fun place to be. There are deadlines and frustrating clients and coworkers. Yet most of us need to work in order to pay our bills and keep ourselves floating above water financially. Few things are more destabilizing than losing our jobs. It’s one thing to be fired because we did a bad job or aren’t up to the task at hand, it’s another to be fired due to something like the color of your skin or your sexual orientation. Both of these examples fall under the category of wrongful termination. Should you have been wrongfully terminated, then you could pursue a wrongful termination lawsuit, but these are quite difficult, so it is important to gather evidence and build a strong case. Today we’re going to look at how Illinois’ wrongful termination laws work to see what counts as wrongful termination, why it’s so hard to prove a termination was wrongful in an at-will state, and what type of evidence you should gather in order to prove that your termination was wrongful.

What Is a Wrongful Termination?

Wrongful termination is a fairly straightforward term in that the term itself suggests what the problem is. However, the term “wrongful termination” doesn’t explain why the termination was wrongful. For that, we need to understand what is and isn’t allowed when it comes to terminating an employee. In some states, there are very specific laws about what is required to fire an employee. Illinois, on the other hand, is what is called an at-will state. That means that an employer can fire an employee for any reason that is justified, and they don’t need to provide any warning. We’ll be discussing more about at-will terminations in a moment. The important thing to understand right now is that even in an at-will state, a firing has to be justified. This typically means a poor work performance or something else of that nature. But what it absolutely does not mean is that an individual can be fired because of something that is protected by federal law, such as:
  • The color of their skin
  • Their religion
  • Their sex
  • Their sexual orientation
  • Their age
  • Their workers’ compensation status
  • They filed a sexual harassment lawsuit
  • They reported illegal activity
  • They got pregnant
These are all protected. Discrimination is not a reason for termination, and if it was, then that termination was wrongful. It would also be wrongful if they were fired as retaliation for something like filing for workers’ comp or reporting illegal activity. Another wrongful termination is one that goes against what is in the employment contract. Certain forms of leave are also protected, such as having to leave for jury duty, using vacation days, or anything covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act. While discrimination certain continues to happen despite being against the law, it’s important to consider how Illinois’s status as an at-will state makes wrongful termination cases harder to win.

Why is it Harder to Prove Wrongful Termination in an At-Will State?

Because Illinois is an at-will state, it can be quite difficult to prove that a termination was wrongful. After all, if an employer is allowed to terminate your employment for nearly any reason without warning, then there are a lot more ways your termination can be framed in order to make it seem like it wasn’t wrongful. This presents an issue when it comes to winning a case of this nature. Unless your employer was particularly ill-informed or simply did not care, they will take the time to hide their discrimination behind an argument that the termination was justified. For example, an employer is not allowed to fire somebody just because of their age. So layoffs may be framed as necessary for the company to continue to earn money. A bunch of people are let go at the same time, and the reasoning seems to be sound; they were less productive employees, and there simply weren’t the resources to keep them around. But a closer look at the layoffs reveals that those who were terminated are all older employees. This would be an example of discrimination based on age, but the true intention of the layoffs is hidden in this whole, justifiable argument. It would take a lot of work and evidence gathering to prove that the terminations were wrongful because the at-will nature of the state helps to support the company rather than the employees.

What Evidence Can Be Used to Prove a Termination Was Wrongful?

Gathering evidence for a wrongful termination case can be quite difficult, especially if you are locked out of the company following your termination. One of the best ways that you can gather evidence begins well before you are terminated. Employees that want to protect themselves can begin by keeping a record of any communication they have with their employer, as many of the true intentions are discussed only behind closed doors. If you were fired “due to your performance,” as their argument would go, then you should gather things like emails you were sent about your performance, client recommendations and reviews you received, proof that you were punctual and showed up to work, and anything of that nature that contradicts their argument. Statements from co-workers can be a powerful piece of evidence. This is especially true should you be accused of something like sexual harassment or theft that you didn’t commit. Essentially, the type of evidence that you gather should be based on the pretenses that were used for your firing. If you can prove that the pretenses were false, then you shine a light on the employer’s credibility.

Can You Be Terminated for Your Conduct Outside of Work?

When not at work, you may not be thinking about your conduct and how it may impact your job. However, it’s important to determine whether or not your conduct outside of work could have you legally terminated from your job. Whether or not you can be terminated from your job depends upon whether what you did was protected under state law and whether or not you’re an at-will employee.

At-will Employees

If you aren’t a union worker or a government employee who has special protection, you are likely an at-will employee. At-will employees can be fired for any reason – or no reason at all – so long as the reason isn’t illegal. Most employees are categorized as at-will, even those who aren’t under an employment contract. But while at-will employees can be terminated at any time without notice or reason, they are also permitted to quit their job without notice or reason. This means that you can be terminated or quit for a bad reason. You can be the best at your job and still be terminated.

What Reasons Are Illegal?

As mentioned, you can be terminated for any reason so long as the reason is not protected under federal law. Under federal law, employers are not allowed to terminate their employees based upon their protected class. Simply put, an employer may not terminate an employee because of his or her race, religion, sex, nationality, disability, or sex. There is no federal protection for employees due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. This means that in most of the country you can be terminated from your job for being gay or transgender. However, under the Illinois Human Rights Act, Illinois is one of just 18 states in the U.S. to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This means that aside from being terminated because you belong to any of these protected groups of people, you can be terminated for any other reason. This means that your employer can choose to terminate you from your position because of what you do outside of work. Maybe you spend your time outside of work golfing and your employer hates golfing. Your employer would be within his or her legal right to terminate you because of this. It doesn’t matter that you are golfing outside of work – off the clock.

What Should I Do If I’ve Been Wrongful Terminated?

The best thing to do is reach out to an employment attorney for a case evaluation. They will be able to look at the circumstances of your case and determine whether or not you have the grounds necessary to proceed with a wrongful termination lawsuit. These can be difficult to win, so it’s important that you work with an experienced attorney that knows what goes into winning a case of this nature.