New Jersey has some of the toughest employee protections in the country. As an employer, it’s important that you understand these protections so you don’t find yourself on the wrong side of a wrongful termination lawsuit when you let an employee go. At Steinberg Law, we defend companies who have been sued for wrongful termination, but we also provide employers with the tools they need to protect themselves before they are sued.
What Is Wrongful Termination in New Jersey?
Wrongful termination lawsuits are generally filed for one of three reasons:
- Breach of contract. Most companies in New Jersey are at-will employers. That means that their employees are not under contract and can be terminated at any time and for any reason. However, employees who are under contract can sue if they were fired in violation of the terms of their contract.
- Discrimination. If the person who was fired is a member of a protected class under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), they could claim that their status was the reason for their termination. It is illegal to fire someone because of their race, gender, age, disability, pregnancy status, and other attributes.
- Retaliation. It is against the law to fire someone because they reported illegal company activity, filed a workers’ comp claim, or took some other undesirable action. New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) protects whistleblowers from retaliation by employers.
In all of these types of lawsuits, liberal compensation is available to successful plaintiffs. In addition, companies that go through wrongful termination lawsuits in the public eye often suffer irreparable damage to their reputation. It is vital for the survival of the company that you fight these lawsuits.
Defenses Against Wrongful Termination Lawsuits
Clearly, the key to fighting a wrongful termination suit by a former employee is to prove that their claims are baseless.
If the employee is a member of a protected class and is claiming discrimination, you will have to provide evidence of the misconduct or poor performance that was the true reason for termination. Showing that you have other employees who are members of the same protected class will also be helpful.
For lawsuits based on breach of contract, your lawyer will have to demonstrate that the employee’s contract was not violated or that the employee voided the contract through their own actions.
Finally, fighting a claim of retaliation will require strong evidence to the contrary. If the employee was, in fact, a whistleblower and was fired after making a report, this will be a very difficult claim to fight.
Take a Proactive Stance to Avoid Wrongful Termination Lawsuits
As you can see, fighting a wrongful termination lawsuit in court will be an uphill battle. However, with reliable advice from a business attorney about how to handle terminations, you will be in a much better position to defend yourself if a former employee sues. Attorney Frank Steinberg can provide guidance that fits your specific situation but, generally speaking, the following strategies are helpful:
- Understand the law. Before terminating an employee, confirm that it is legal to do so. Anyone in the company who makes firing decisions should understand the terms of employee handbooks and contracts and be familiar with NJLAD and CEPA. It might be wise to consult an employment lawyer before firing anyone.
- Create a paper trail. Having employees sign off on clear expectations in a handbook when they are hired and documenting every breach of expectation creates a paper trail that will be essential in supporting your decision to fire them. Conducting regular performance reviews that inform the employee of specific areas of poor performance is also important. These shortcomings—with documented evidence—should be communicated to the employee when they are fired.
- Hire replacements thoughtfully. If you terminate an employee who is a member of a protected class, consider replacing them with someone of the same class. While this is not always possible, it can provide evidence to a jury that you did not make the termination decision based on a protected characteristic.
How Steinberg Law Can Help
As with any business decision, it is vital that you take the time to understand the law, your options, and the potential consequences before you terminate an employee. Whether you are currently facing a wrongful termination lawsuit or you want to take steps to avoid the potential for one, contact Steinberg Law to learn more about protecting your business.