Tragically, I hear this story, or some variation thereof, all of the time. I got a job, worked for a day, a month, a year and then, without warning, I was laid off, terminated or made redundant. Someone has to pay for this, right? I mean, I never had any warning at all and the boom came down on me. What can I do?
Before you start dancing around with visions of dollar signs in your head, realize this. Unfortunately, you cant do a whole lot. Maryland is what we like to call an at-will employment state.
What this means is that your employer, in the absence of a written employment contract, can terminate you at any time for almost any reason. I say almost because there are a few things an employer cant whack you for. Again, unfortunately, ending a sentence with a preposition could be one of them.
Seriously, an employer cant give you the boot for any activities or characteristics that concern age, race, nationality, religion, disability or marital status. Fired because of your age? Lawsuit. Fired because of your religion? Lawsuit. Fired because of your heritage? Lawsuit.
Trickier areas are if youre fired for filing a workers compensation claim if you were legitimately injured on the job; if you put in for overtime pay when you actually worked the extra hours; or if your employer requires you to do something illegal to keep your job. There are also laws against terminating you for asking management to provide you with a healthy and safe workplace.
If you dont fulfill any of these requirements, you may not be out of luck. There are some recent cases that deal with people who were offered jobs and then, after the employee left their old job, made plans to relocate, bought a new house in the new city, etc., the new employer rescinded the job offer. There is a good faith element to these victories, as well as a fairness component.
There was a meeting of the minds between the new employer and the employee, and the employee relied on this to make plans, buy houses, quit jobs, move the kids out of school and begin a new life. This is also called detrimental reliance, and you see that a lot in contract claims.
But employment law is not necessarily the prime forum for contract remedies. Oftentimes, a new job is offered and accepted on the basis of a phone call or a handshake. There is no written document that sets forth the job, hours, requirements and salary. If there is (and that would be in the vast minority, Ill tell you), make sure you read the employment contract carefully not just the hours and the salary.
Same goes for any employee handbook. Know what can get you in trouble, and how your employer can and will resolve any situation that affects your performance and their business. It then becomes your job (as much as I hate to say it) to make sure your employer follows the requirements set forth in the handbook.
Also, if youre asked to join a union, make sure you read the union agreement carefully. While a union gives you an extra layer of protection in case something untoward happens, you have to follow the unions rules and their timelines. You also have to realize that union protection only goes so far. Resolving an issue can take some time, and may cost you a few bucks out of pocket.
Employment law is pretty straightforward, and Maryland law is as well.
You can be fired at any time, for just about any reason.
However, Im reminded of a caller I had a few years ago that wanted to sue a doctor for medical misdiagnosis. The doc said this guy had a mental problem, and, it turns out, my phone buddy did not. In this instance, I told him, a bill of clean heath is usually its own reward. Unless the course of treatment would have been worse than the cure.
So, usually, if you get jacked from a company for reasons that are dubious at best (and do not fit into the exceptions listed above), consider yourself lucky; youve dodged a huge bullet that would have likely destroyed you if it would have connected.
Christopher L. Markham is a general practice attorney based in Frederick. He can be reached at email@example.com.