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Is workplace discrimination and retaliation illegal?

After being fired from a job, some individuals want to know, “Was my firing legal?”

Employers in "at will" employment states, such as Michigan, are allowed to fire employees for any reason. But there are exceptions.

A wrongful termination occurs when an employer dismisses an employee for an illegal reason or in violation of an employment contract, according to FindLaw. The illegal reasons can include discrimination, retaliation and harassment. 

In this post, we will look at discrimination and retaliation.

Wrongful termination based on discrimination

Under federal law, it is illegal to discriminate against someone in the workplace because of:

  • Race
  • Disability
  • Sex
  • Age
  • National Origin
  • Religion
  • Color
  • Genetic information

Here's a simple example of discrimination based on a disability. Mike works in the claims department for an insurance company. Mike's performance reviews have always been stellar. Then Mike was diagnosed with cancer. He requested a modified work schedule to accommodate his cancer treatments at a local clinic. The day after making the request, Mike was dismissed from his job. 

Based on those facts, it appears Mike was fired illegally, because employers are obligated to make reasonable accommodations for people who have disabilities. Requesting a modified schedule would likely be considered a reasonable accommodation.

Wrongful termination based on retaliation

Unfortunately, employers sometimes retaliate against employees who report discrimination.

It is illegal to "retaliate against a person because he or she complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit," according to the The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces federal employment laws.

Here's an example of a possible retaliation case. Deborah works for a health care company. She recently received her annual review. The results were outstanding and she received a raise. Six weeks after her review, Deborah complained to her boss that she's being sexually harassed by a colleague. Two weeks after reporting the harassment, the company fires Deborah without explanation.

On the basis of those facts, it appears Deborah was fired in retaliation for reporting the sexual harassment.

Michigan's most common wrongful terminations

In Michigan in 2016, retaliation was the most common wrongful termination charge, according to the EEOC. The numbers below from the EEOC show the number of wrongful termination charges filed in the state in 2016, by category. Keep in mind that one charge could encompass multiple categories.

  • Retaliation, 981
  • Race, 891
  • Disability, 872
  • Sex 729
  • Age, 623
  • National Origin, 155
  • Religion, 98
  • Color, 30
  • Genetic information, 9

Michigan's 2016 statistics are consistent with past years. The top five charges typically are retaliation, race, disability, sex and age.

If you have questions about wrongful termination, contact an experienced employment law attorney.

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