What is Wrongful Termination of Employment in Nebraska?

Are you a member of a union? Do you have an agreement with your employer that says how long your employment will last? If your answers are no, more likely than not, you are an “at-will” employee. As an “at-will” employee, you are free to leave your employment at any time and for any reason. On the other side of the coin, as an “at-will” employee, your employer can terminate your employment at any time and for any reason. Under “at-will” employment, your employer can let you go from your job for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all.

When is an employment termination wrongful under the law? 

Employees have the right not to be discriminated against (e.g. terminated, demoted, etc.) because of their “protected class” or because they engaged in a “protected activity.”

What is a protected class?

Race, religion (or non-religion), sex, gender, national origin, age, and disability are all examples of being a member of a protected class. There are a number of other protected classes in addition to these. 

Commonly, people think only certain groups of people, like minorities or women, are protected classes. While those are valid examples, everyone belongs to a protected class. Being a male is a protected class, just as is being female.  Whether you are Catholic, Jewish, a Jehovah Witness, Christian, an atheist, or other religion, you are in a protected class. White, Black, and Asian are other examples of protected classes.

What is a protected activity?

A protected activity is an action taken by an employee where the law prevents the employer from firing or discriminating against the worker for having engaged in that activity.  A protected activity usually involves: (1) refusing to commit an illegal activity on behalf of the employer; (2) opposing discrimination in the workplace; (3) participating in an investigation of discrimination; and/or (4) engaging in an activity that the state considers to be for the benefit of public policy. 

For example, reporting a co-worker or a supervisor for sexual harassment is a protected activity. Refusing to falsify tax records, an illegal activity, on behalf of the employer is a protected activity. Another example of a protected activity is filing a worker’s compensation claim due to a work-related job injury. Like protected classes, there are numerous protected activities.

Was my termination wrongful based on protected class?

You have a wrongful termination claim if you can establish you were terminated from your job in any way BECAUSE of your protected class. In other words, if you have information which leads you to believe that your protected class status (race, religion, age, gender, sex, disability, etc.) is a reason why you were terminated, then you may have a wrongful termination claim.  

Think about it this way: just because you may be Hispanic and terminated from your job, does not mean you were wrongfully terminated. But, if you can prove you were terminated, in whole or in part, because you are Hispanic, then you would have a valid wrongful termination claim. 

Was my termination wrongful due to a protected activity?

Similarly, if you believe you are able to connect your participation in a protected activity to your termination, you may have a wrongful termination claim. 

For example, you see and hear an employee making very inappropriate sexual suggestions toward another employee and physically touching another employee.  It is obvious to you that the person targeted is very uncomfortable and that the conduct is not welcomed.  You conclude you witnessed an employee being sexually harassed. Soon after, you go to your supervisor and/or your human resources department and report what you witnessed. But instead of the employer thanking you for doing the right thing, the employer fires you for “making waves,” “rocking the boat,” or potentially making the employer look bad. Under this scenario, you have been unlawfully retaliated against for engaging in a protected activity, and you now have a wrongful termination claim. 

May a termination be unfair but not violate the law?

Unfortunately, yes. This happens frequently. Remember, an employer may fire an employee for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all.  Just because a termination is unfair does not mean the termination is wrongful in the eyes of the law. 

Sometimes there are personality differences between an employee and a supervisor that lead to a termination. Also, simply reporting your supervisor or a co-worker for being mean or too hard to work with is not a protected activity and could lead to your termination.  It may not be fair, and you may be right about your supervisor or colleague, but the law does not get involved in settling personality disputes in the workplace. 

What should I do if I have been wrongfully terminated?

You should consult with an employment attorney if you believe you have been wrongfully terminated. In Nebraska, depending on the type of discrimination you encountered, you may only have 300 days to either file a lawsuit or file a Charge of Discrimination with the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission (“NEOC”).  If you do not do one or the other, you may be prohibited from pursuing your claim.  As a Nebraska employee, if you wish to pursue a claim under Federal law, you may have to file a Charge of Discrimination with either the NEOC or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before pursuing certain federal wrongful termination claims in court. An attorney may help advise you on the best path moving forward.