Like most states, Ohio is an at-will employment state. This means that an employee can be fired for no reason, or any reason, even if it’s a bad reason, so long as the reason is not unlawful. Unless you have signed an employment agreement or belong to a union, you are an at-will employee in Ohio.
What Constitutes Wrongful Termination
The most common so-called “wrongful terminations” are due to discrimination, retaliation, and violation of public policy. If the termination is unlawful, and it can be proven, you may have recourse against your Employer.
Discrimination Based on Protected Classifications
Title Vll of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000d et seq., prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of any of the following characteristics:
Ohio’s Civil Rights Act adds military status and ancestry to the list of protected characteristics.
Other federal laws provide additional protections for pregnant employees, older employees, and employees with disabilities.
Additionally, the Supreme Court held in a recent decision that Employers may not discriminate against LGBTQ people. Bostock v. Clayton County, 590 U.S. (2020).
In many cases, it’s difficult to prove that an Employer’s motive was, in fact, discrimination against an employee in a protected class. In such situations, showing disparate impact is another way to prove that a job requirement that appears neutral on its face has a discriminatory effect. For example, a strength requirement may disqualify a disproportionate number of females for a job.
Termination Based on Retaliation
Workplace retaliation occurs when an employer punishes or fires an employee for engaging in a so-called “protected activity.” Examples of these types of activities include:
- Demanding the minimum wage and/or earned overtime to which an Employee is entitled
- Reporting regulatory violations, such as an unsafe workplace under OSHA regulations
- Requesting an accommodation for a disability or religious practice
- Refusing to follow discriminatory policies.
Retaliation that an employee might experience from an employer for engaging in protected activities includes:
- Increased scrutiny of job performance
- Undeserved low performance evaluations
- Denial of a promotion
- Schedule changes that interfere with activities outside of work, such as caring for a child
- Verbal or physical abuse
A situation where an employee is terminated for engaging in a protected activity is relatively straightforward. But where the retaliation is something less than termination, an employee may be able to show “constructive discharge.” In Ohio, constructive discharge requires a showing that the employer’s conduct is so severe or pervasive that it alters the conditions of the employee’s employment and creates an abusive working environment. Daniels v. Pike Cty. Commrs., 706 Fed. Appx. 281, 287 (6th Cir. 2017).
Discharge In Violation of Public Policy
Since 1990, Ohio has recognized a “wrongful termination in violation of public policy” exception to Ohio’s employment-at-will doctrine. Greeley v. Miami Valley Maintenance Contrs., 49 Ohio St. 3d 288 (1990). The claim was available if:
- There is a clear public policy manifested in a state or federal constitution, law, administrative regulation or common law;
- Dismissing the Employee undermines the public policy;
- The Employee’s dismissal was motivated by the public policy; and
- The Employer lacked an overriding business justification for the dismissal.
If an employer terminated an employee for taking time off to vote, serve on jury duty, or serve in the National Guard, the employee could allege that he was discharged in violation of public policy.
A recent Ohio Supreme Court case appears to have diluted this public policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine. House v. Iacovelli, 159 Ohio St.3d 466 (2020). In this case, the plaintiff was a restaurant server who alleged that her Employer underreported her earnings to the state, which would have resulted in reduced unemployment compensation to her. The court dismissed the case, finding that the statute in question did not contain an individual employee remedy, and noting that Ohio has methods to protect the public policy of the accurate reporting of Employee earnings
Remedies for Wrongful Termination
A number of remedies can be imposed for wrongful termination. These include compensatory damages such as back and front pay; punitive damages against the employer for violations of law; attorneys’ fees and costs incurred by the Employee; and reinstatement to the position. The precise legal remedies will be based on the specific legal claims that are made.
Under Ohio’s new Employment Law Uniformity Act, which took effect in April 2021, damages caps are as follows:
- Compensatory damages for economic loss (e.g., back pay, medical expenses) are not limited
- Compensatory damages for non-economic loss (e.g., pain and suffering) cannot exceed the greater of $250,000 or three times the amount of the plaintiff’s economic loss to a maximum of $350,000 for each plaintiff or $500,000 for each occurrence
- Punitive damages cannot exceed two times the amount of compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff, or 10% of a small employer’s or individual’s net worth when the alleged tort was committed, to a maximum of $350,000.
In an at-will employment state like Ohio, employers are allowed to be irrational, rude, or unfair, unless they run afoul of the legal principles above. Wrongful termination is difficult to prove in the best of cases, and it frequently pivots on the intent of the employer. Additionally, these types of lawsuits have strict deadlines and filing requirements. A lawyer experienced in wrongful termination cases can help you objectively assess the evidence and determine whether it makes sense to move forward with a lawsuit. Get in touch today for a free consultation to see how we can help.