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This is a follow-up from my previous question.

Following my discussion with HR about the ethical violation of my manager and some colleagues, I was suddenly fired without any prior notice from my current employer. They put a few false labels on me, and give me a termination letter. They also asked me to return the sign-on bonus back.

What are the US laws for firing an employee? Shouldn't I get an unemployed payment for a few months or something similar? I'm in Texas, US. In the employment letter, the phrase "at-will" is used.

  • 1
    Generally "at will" means the employee may quit at any time for any reason and conversely the employer can fire you any time for any reason (barring any employment laws of course, i.e. firing based on race, religion, etc.) – BruceWayne Feb 28 '18 at 23:23
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    An employer doesn't have to figure out who is at fault if two employees can't get along. it's perfectly reasonable, and legal, for them to just fire the less productive employee or the one they can more easily replace. They may opt to do so because they believe that a perception of office fairness will improve employee morale and loyalty, but they are free to weigh that against the utility of just solving the problem quickly and not paying everyone to argue over who is responsible. – David Schwartz Mar 1 '18 at 6:47
  • The linked question was deleted? – JPhi1618 Mar 1 '18 at 17:02
  • yes it was deleted – Tina J Mar 1 '18 at 17:25
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At Will Employment - In General

An "at will" employee in the U.S. can be fired at any time for any reason without any prior notice or warning. Outside a union shop or a civil service employment situation, even an illegal reason for firing does not give you the right to be reinstated in your job - instead it gives you a right to sue for money damages.

Unemployment Benefits and Employment References

If you are fired for good cause (or you quit in a situation that is not a constructive termination), you are not entitled to unemployment benefits.

If you are fired without cause particular to your conduct (e.g. you are laid off in the employer's reduction in the size of the employer's labor force), or your are fired for a reason that is not good cause (e.g. you are fire because the boss is annoyed because you are such a goody two shoes that you always show up to work on time), you may be entitled to unemployment benefits based upon your term of service and earnings (short time employees are often not entitled to unemployment benefits no matter what).

If you apply for unemployment benefits because you assert that you were fired without good cause, and the employer believes you were fired for good cause, the employer can dispute that finding in a summary administrative hearing. Employers fight awards of unemployment benefits for employees who are fired rather than laid off, because it affects the employer's unemployment insurance rates (and because they care, for non-economic reasons, if the integrity of their stated reasons for firing someone are not believed, or if their reasons for firing someone are not considered to be legitimate grounds for termination by a government agency).

Even if you are entitled to unemployment benefits, these benefits are much smaller than your regular pay, and generally last less long than the period for which you were employed. A formula or calculator should appear on the Texas Workforce Commission Website.

I assume when you say that "They put a few fake tags on me" that this means that they stated reasons that would be valid "for cause" reasons for termination and you dispute those reasons apply to you, but please clarify if I am mistaken. If that is the case, it is likely that you would have to fight for any unemployment benefits you are otherwise entitled to in an administrative hearing as the company is likely to contest your claim that you were not fired for good cause.

This also means that if you seek new employment that they will give you a bad reference to someone who inquires about your employment (although many HR departments are afraid to do that for fear of defamation liability and will only confirm the dates of your employment and your position).

Wrongful Termination Lawsuits

Separate and apart from unemployment benefits, if you are fired, not just without cause, but for an illegal reasons (e.g. race, sex, and select statutory prohibited reasons), you may bring a wrongful termination lawsuit. Some of those reasons (firings related to discrimination by a private sector employer) require you to file an EEOC complaint and have it investigated by them first, other of those reasons (mostly whistle blowing statutes and breaches of written employment contracts that don't allow for termination of employment without cause) allow you to immediately bring suit for wrongful termination.

The legal status of firing someone because you complained about another employee's ethical violation depends upon the exact nature of the ethical violation. For example, a U.S. Supreme Court case decided this month (i.e. February/March 2018) held that whistle blower protections under U.S. securities laws apply to people who report securities fraud to the SEC, but not to people who report securities fraud to a supervisor in the company.

"My fellow employee was a lying asshole who acted unprofessionally (in non-technical sense of the word), and I complained about this conduct to my supervisor and the employer didn't care" standing alone, would not normally constitute conduct that is covered by a whistle blowing statute that could allow you to bring a lawsuit for wrongful termination of employment, although it might constitute a constructive termination for bad cause by an employer (if you quit) or termination for bad cause by an employer (if you were fired) for unemployment insurance purposes.

The legal theory behind the amount of damages that can be awarded in a wrongful termination lawsuit is a bit obscure. As a rule of thumb, six months wages is a pretty typical settlement amount in a wrongful termination case prior to a determination by a court of employer liability. At trial, there is wide variation in what juries award in wrongful termination lawsuits involving similar facts. Sometimes the award is minimal even when the jury finds that the employer wrongfully fired you, and sometimes the award is very substantial, amounting to many years of lost income in amount.

Contractual Payment Obligations

Generally speaking, unless a written contract provides otherwise, you have no obligation to return a hiring bonus and the employer has a contractual duty (and probably a statutory one as well) to pay you through the date of termination without deduction for a hiring bonus paid.

This includes any amounts, including bonuses, that the employer was obligated to pay you, although proving an entitlement to a bonus can be difficult unless that standard for receiving one is clearly defined and you clearly met those standards as a factual matter. Sometimes, you can even win a breach of contract award for a bonus that was not yet fully earned if the only reason that the bonus was not awarded was the employer's bad faith conduct.

You could sue to collect unpaid wages in a Justice Court (the limited jurisdiction court for small claims in Texas) if necessary, if the amount you are claiming is under $10,000. If you have a claim for unpaid wages in a larger amount or also have other damages, you would need to bring suit in the appropriate county court or district court, depending upon the amount claimed.

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    Perhaps worth mentioning that the small-claims limit in Texas is $10k. – chrylis -on strike- Mar 1 '18 at 3:51
  • Thanks. Very comprehensive. Is there any free lawyer that can advise or possibly follow up my case? – Tina J Mar 1 '18 at 4:52
  • @chrylis what does it mean exactly? – Tina J Mar 1 '18 at 4:53
  • "unless a written contract provides otherwise" -> and unless state employment law and/or the FLSA invalidates such a contractual term (which varies substantially by both subject matter and state). For example, they can't just dock your wages whenever they feel like it, regardless of what the contract claims. – Kevin Mar 1 '18 at 6:17
  • @TinaJ A $10k limit means that if you sue in Justice Court it can't give you more than $10,000 even if it finds, for example, that you were actually owed $12,000. Sometimes you can find a pro-bono lawyer through a county bar association, but for the most part lawyers won't take cases like this for free. DIY is often the reality out of necessity. – ohwilleke Mar 1 '18 at 7:35

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