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How Employers Can Navigate Wrongful Termination of Employment Lawsuits With Confidence

Like most states, Florida is an “at-will” employment state. This means employees can be terminated at any time, so long as the employer avoids discriminatory or illegal actions. However, while at-will employment allows most employers to terminate employees at their discretion, it doesn’t mean they can fire anyone at any time “just because.”

The employment and labor law team at Cobb Cole provides Florida employers with comprehensive legal services, including protecting and defending them when sued by an employee for wrongful termination and proactively working with employers to help them avoid future lawsuits. We help our clients navigate Florida’s complex employment laws through solid legal advice and counseling that protects their businesses while maintaining positive employee relations.

Exceptions to At-Will Employment in Florida

Most employers know about written employment contracts, which are an exception to an at-will employment relationship.  However, many employers don’t realize they can be sued for violating what’s known as “implied” employment contracts. These unwritten agreements between an employer and employee establish certain employment terms, even though there isn’t a formal, signed contract. The “contract” is typically based on things like employee handbooks, expectations, employer promises, and long-term employment. This concept is particularly relevant in wrongful termination cases.

If you want to terminate an employee for cause or otherwise, you need to ensure you are doing so in compliance with the law. Discriminatory or illegal actions not protected under Florida’s employment and labor laws include termination based on the following:

  1. Unlawful discrimination. Firing an employee due to their age, race, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs, among other protected classifications, is an at-will employment exception because it breaks federal and state laws on discriminatory employment practices.
  2. Retaliation. Similarly, it is illegal to fire or harass a worker in retaliation for taking a protected action or right, including filing a worker’s compensation claim or for taking time off for family or maternity leave, jury duty, or military service.
  3. Breach of contract. If your business has a written executed employment contract, an employee could file a breach of contract claim.

What is a Wrongful Termination of Employment Lawsuit?

If an employee believes their firing was based on discrimination or retaliation, they are entitled to assert a complaint to the Equal Employments Opportunity Commission or its Florida counterpart, the Florida Commission on Human Relations.  Thereafter, they can file a wrongful termination of employment lawsuit. Damages in a wrongful termination case can be substantial and often include lost wages and benefits, emotional distress damages, attorney fees, reinstatement, and punitive damages.

Florida employees are protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under federal law.  Similarly, Florida Statute §760.10 of the Florida Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on various factors and protects employees from retaliation against discriminatory practices. Florida Statute §448.102 prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who report illegal employment practices.

Along with financial liability risks, businesses facing a wrongful termination matter must consider the following:

  • Legal costs. Legal fees, court costs, and potential settlement payments can add up quickly. Even if you win the case, the cost of defending against the lawsuit can be substantial.
  • Reputational damage. News of a wrongful termination lawsuit can spread amongst clients, business partners, and the public, potentially damaging your business’s brand and trustworthiness.
  • Time and resources. Management and human resources may need to divert attention from regular duties to address legal matters, including gathering evidence, consulting with lawyers, and appearing in court.
  • Compliance and policy review. A wrongful termination lawsuit can be a sign to review and update your employment policies. This includes ensuring compliance with local, state, and federal laws concerning discrimination, retaliation, and employment contracts. Employers might also want to introduce measures to prevent future lawsuits.
  • Workplace culture. The lawsuit could impact your relationship with remaining employees, with concerns about job security and company practices leading to decreased morale and productivity.

Every wrongful termination of employment case is different. Cobb Cole’s employment and labor law attorneys discuss various actions you might take from the point of view of risks, costs, and benefits while reducing liability. We then work with you to chart a path forward and seek appropriate remedies.

Navigating Wrongful Termination of Employment Lawsuits

These steps can help your business reduce the risk of wrongful termination litigation while creating a compliant workplace:

  1. Establish clear employment policies. Well-defined employment policies and procedures should include guidelines on employee performance expectations, a code of conduct, and anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. Employees should also be made aware of the appropriate chain of command in case of a workplace issue or complaint. Consistent application of these guidelines can demonstrate fairness and help avoid discrimination claims.
  2. Document employee behavior and underperformance. Keep accurate records of employee performance evaluations, disciplinary actions, and any communications related to performance issues. This documentation can support your defense in the event an employee claims their termination is in violation of Florida law.
  3. Provide frequent employee feedback. Employers who can prove they counsel employees about poor performance are in a better position to defend wrongful termination claims.
  4. Be consistent. Treat all employees fairly and uniformly. Inconsistencies in how your company handles terminations can lead to accusations of discrimination
  5. Comply with anti-discrimination laws. All Florida businesses must comply with federal laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which prohibit termination based on protected characteristics.
  6. Develop a policy for handling whistleblowers. Businesses should proceed with caution when terminating employees who report illegal activity by the company, as they are protected from retaliation under various laws.
  7. Offer severance agreements. These agreements can discourage future legal action and allow employers and employees to move forward after a termination.

Seeking legal advice when dealing with a complex termination case can help your business through the process and ensure compliance with applicable regulations. Cobb Cole’s approach to wrongful termination of employment lawsuits prioritizes negotiating resolutions that minimize disruption to operations and protect your interests.

Contact us online or call 386-255-8171 to learn more or to schedule a consultation.

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