Seattle Wrongful Termination Attorney
Disclaimer: The information on this website does not, and is not intended to constitute legal advice. All information on this site is for general information purposes. No reader of this site should act or refrain from acting on the basis of information provided on this site without seeking legal advice from counsel.
Ed Hones is an employment lawyer in Seattle, Washington, who represents victims of wrongful termination. The purpose of this page is to provide workers with an easy-to-digest legal framework for wrongful termination, and to also provide answers to common questions that workers have about wrongful termination lawsuits. If you believe you were a victim of wrongful termination, contact Hones Law for a consultation.
Overview of wrongful termination law in Washington
While any illegal termination is technically wrongful, this guide will discuss the specific cause of action in Washington known as “wrongful termination.”
In Washington state, workers are generally employed “at will,” meaning an employer can fire its workers for any reason it sees fit, unless that reason is illegal. Many illegal reasons for firing a worker are illegal because they violate a specific statute, like Washington’s anti-discrimination or anti-retaliation statutes (see my pages on discrimination and retaliation for more info about that).
However, not all illegal reasons for firing a worker are specifically written in a statute. Wrongful termination exists when an employer fires a worker in a way that is not necessarily prohibited by statute, but is nonetheless illegal because it violates an important public policy.
Violations of public policy
Although not an exhaustive list, Washington courts have found employers violate public policy when they fire a worker because of the worker’s involvement in the following four activities:
- Refusing to commit an illegal act, such as refusing to submit false tax returns;
- Performing a public duty, such as serving on a jury;
- Exercising a legal right or privilege, such as taking leave; and
- Reporting employer misconduct, i.e., whistle-blowing.
Examples of Wrongful Termination
Some examples of wrongful termination in violation of public policy include the following:
- Firing a worker for filing a workers’ compensation claim.
- Firing a worker for engaging in union activity.
- Firing a worker for whistle-blowing.
- Firing a worker for reporting unsafe working conditions.
- Firing a worker who refused to submit false tax returns.
- Firing a worker who refused to commit perjury.
- Firing a worker for serving on jury.
- Firing a worker that abandoned his position to help a person in distress.
Table of Contents
Other forms of wrongful termination
Breach of contract
Wrongful termination also exists when an employer fires a worker in a way that violates the worker’s contractual rights. These contractual rights can arise in the following situations:
- Express or implied contract,
- Employee handbook procedures.
First, an express or implied contract can limit the circumstances under which your employer can fire you. For example, employers and workers are free to enter into contracts limiting termination of the worker only “for cause.” Such a provision prohibits the employer from firing you for an arbitrary reason, and instead requires substantial evidence to justify your termination. An employer’s violation of such a provision would constitute wrongful termination.
Second, an employee handbook may create a promise for a specific treatment in specific situations contained in the handbook. If your employee handbook contains a promise of specific treatment in a specific situation that you relied upon, and that your employer violated when it fired you, you may have a claim of wrongful termination.
Can you sue for wrongful termination in Washington State?
Yes, you can sue your employer for wrongful termination in Washington state. Wrongful termination is a common-law claim in Washington state, meaning it’s a judge-created law. While most employment protections are memorialized in statutes, wrongful termination is not.
Wrongful termination was first recognized in Washington state by the Supreme Court of Washington State in Thompson v. St. Regis Paper Company. Since then, wrongful termination has become a fertile ground for litigation in Washington state.
What qualifies as wrongful termination?
Wrongful termination is a catch-all in the law for illegal terminations that aren’t covered by statute. Most illegal terminations are in statutes, like Washington’s Law Against Discrimination or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Those statutes outlaw discriminatory termination on the basis of protected characteristics, and termination in retaliation for reporting discrimination. But those anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation laws don’t cover every illegal reason for terminating an employee. So, judges created the wrongful termination cause of action as a way of describing those other forms of illegal termination.
Generally, wrongful termination arises under the following two scenarios: (1) the employer fired a worker in a way that violated public policy, or (2) the employer fired a worker in a way that violated the worker’s contractual rights.
Violations of public policy examples:
- Firing a worker that reported illegal activity at work.
- Firing a worker who filed a worker’s comp claim.
- Firing a worker for exercising a legal right, like paid family leave, or engaging in union activity.
- Firing a worker for reporting unsafe work conditions.
- Firing a worker for refusing to do something illegal.
Violations of contractual rights examples:
- A worker has a “for cause” provision in their contract, and the employer fires the worker for an arbitrary reason, without cause.
- A worker relies on specific treatment outlined in their employee handbook that the employer violated when it fired the worker.
Is it still wrongful termination if you quit?
As the name suggests, wrongful termination requires the employer to actually terminate the worker. A worker that quits is generally not able to claim wrongful termination because the worker wasn’t terminated. However, one important exception applies to workers that were forced to resign. That exception is called “constructive discharge.”
Constructive discharge exists when the employer made the working conditions so intolerable for the worker that the worker was effectively forced to resign. In such a case, the court treats the worker’s resignation as a termination.
However, constructive discharge is difficult to prove. Washington courts presume any resignation is voluntary. A worker claiming constructive discharge must show that their employer deliberately made the working conditions intolerable, and that the working conditions “would have been so difficult or unpleasant that a reasonable person in the employee’s shoes would have felt compelled to resign.”1
How do you prove wrongful termination?
Sequence of events
First, establishing the sequence of events is very important in a wrongful termination case. As we’ve already discussed, wrongful termination occurs when an employee engages in some activity protected by public policy, like reporting misconduct, and then gets fired for engaging that protected activity. Therefore, the first hurdle in proving your claim is establishing that you first engaged in the activity protected by public policy and that you were then fired AFTER you engaged in that activity. Proximity in time between engaging in the protected activity and your termination will help prove your claim.
Employers will usually claim that the worker was fired for a reason unrelated to their protected activity. Employers sometimes claim that they fired the worker because of poor job performance. Therefore, the next step in proving your claim is to establish satisfactory job performance. Positive performance reviews can help establish satisfactory job performance.
Another key piece of evidence to establish wrongful termination is the employer’s discipline history. The employer may claim that it terminated you because of insubordination or tardiness. However, were you ever written up for tardiness or insubordination? And even if you were, did the employer fire other employees who were written up for similar things? If the employer has never fired another worker for the reason it’s giving for firing you, then it’s more likely than not that the employer is lying.
Evidence that the employer is lying about its proffered reason
Finally, any evidence that establishes that the employer is lying will help prove your case of wrongful termination. In the litigation process, wrongful termination attorneys have various tools to uncover inconsistencies in the employer’s story. And when we can show that the employer is lying about its reason for firing the worker and that the real reason was due to the worker’s protected activity, that’s called “pretext” in the law, and it wins the case for the worker.
Is it hard to prove wrongful termination?
Whether or not a wrongful termination claim is hard to prove depends on the facts and circumstances of your case. Employers will always claim that they terminated you for a legitimate reason unrelated to your protected activity.
Is the employer’s proffered reason kind of true? For instance, were you written up for poor performance? Do you have a record of being disciplined at work?
Sometimes, even when an employer terminated a worker for an illegal reason, it can be hard to prove wrongful termination because the employer had a valid reason to fire the worker too. And, of course, the employer will claim that the only reason for terminating the worker was the legitimate reason, which makes the task of proving the case difficult.
On the other hand, if you only have positive performance reviews and no history of discipline, or you have evidence that shows the employer intended to fire you because of your protected activity, proving your case can be pretty straight forward.
How much do wrongful termination lawyers charge?
Most wrongful termination attorneys charge a contingency fee. That means that, instead of charging the client up front, the lawyer instead takes a portion of what they recover at trial or settlement.
Contingency fees can be really helpful to a worker who was just fired, losing their main source of income, because it requires no out-of-pocket fees.
However, contingency fees aren’t always the best option. If the value of the case is too low to justify a contingency fee arrangement, most wrongful termination lawyers are still willing to work for an hourly rate.
How much are wrongful termination cases worth?
In Washington state, workers who were wrongfully terminated are entitled to (1) back pay, (2) front pay, and (3) compensation for their emotional distress.
By adding all three together, you can determine a rough estimate of the value of your case.
Front pay is the future salary that you are going to lose because of your wrongful termination. Front pay represents the difference between what you would have earned had you not been wrongfully terminated, and what you can expect to earn going forward.
For example, let’s say you were making $60K/year at your job where you were wrongfully terminated. While you were able to secure a new job the next year, that new job only pays $50K/year. In that scenario, your front pay would be $10K/year for the length of time you would have been employed were you not wrongfully terminated (possibly until retirement).
Finally, Washington law allows workers in wrongful termination actions to recover compensation for their emotional distress.
The amount of compensation you can recover for your emotional distress is highly variant and depends on the facts and circumstances of your case. Some of the factors wrongful termination lawyers consider in determining emotional distress are as follows:
- Was the employer’s conduct particularly egregious?
- Did your employer’s conduct have lasting impacts on your life?
- Have others in your life noticed a difference in your behavior?
- Were you humiliated, embarrassed, or scared by your employer’s conduct?
- Have you lost enjoyment in your work or other areas of your life?
What is the average payout for wrongful termination?
Most wrongful termination claims are settled outside of court. The trial process can be very costly for an employer and emotionally draining for a worker. Therefore, most of the time, the parties both agree that their best option is to settle outside of court instead of going to trial.
The monetary amount the parties agree on will depend on several factors such as the length of time the worker worked for the employer, the worker’s salary, how strong the worker’s evidence is, and how emotionally harmful the employer’s conduct was to the worker.
But in most cases where the parties agree to settle, the settlement value ranges between $10,000 and $100,000. There are outliers, of course, but the majority of wrongful terminations cases settle within that range.
Is it worth it to sue your employer for wrongful termination?
The short answer is “it depends.”
Wrongful termination suits allow regular folks to stand up to powerful companies. By filing a claim, you’re able to tell your story publicly and hold your employer accountable for its wrongdoing.
However, a lawsuit is NOT a good way to strike it rich. The payment of money damages is meant to make the victim whole again, not to make them wealthy.
If your goal is to hit the jackpot and retire early, litigation is not your best option. Many wrongful termination suits do not succeed. And even when they do, it can be a long and difficult process.
Nevertheless, if you were the victim of wrongful termination and lost significant earnings, incurred a setback to your career trajectory, and/or suffered a substantial hit to your emotional wellbeing, employment litigation may be a good option for you. By pursuing a claim, you can get compensated for your loss and force your employer to change its practices, which prevents the employer from harming other workers.
Steps to take if you were wrongfully terminated
First, do not react negatively to your employer–they will likely use that against you if you bring a claim. So, don’t send a threatening email, don’t tell them you are going to sue, and don’t be rude. If possible, don’t say anything.
Second, don’t sign anything before talking to an attorney. If your employer gives you an agreement that says something like “severance agreement,” or “separation agreement” that they ask you to sign for money, talk to an attorney before signing it. The agreement will likely impair your ability to bring future legal claims, which is a valuable right that you may be signing away.
Third, collect and organize all the documents you have. Helpful documents include things like your employee handbook, printed emails, paystubs, employment contract, and any other relevant documents you have. Importantly, do not steal documents or record anyone without their permission.
Fourth, contact a wrongful termination attorney at once. The attorney will listen carefully to your story and discuss your options.
NOTE: If you are given a severance agreement to sign, contact a wrongful termination attorney AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. The agreement will likely contain a deadline, and your attorney will need as much time as possible to investigate the circumstances surrounding your termination.
What is the statute of limitations for wrongful termination?
The statute of limitations is the deadline to file your claim. If you fail to meet the statute of limitations deadline, your claim expires.
Violation of public policy
Washington’s statute of limitations for actions involving a violation of public policy is THREE YEARS following the date of your termination.2
Breach of contract
In Washington, for claims involving a written contract, plaintiff must file within SIX YEARS of the violation. For claims involving an oral contract, plaintiff must file within THREE YEARS of the violation.3
Employment Law is my Singular focus
If you were the victim of wrongful termination, you need an attorney who knows the practice area well and can get you compensated.
I focus all my attention on one area of law so that you can rest assured that your employment matter is in the right hands.
Contact Hones Law today for a consultation.