Understanding Wrongful Termination

Getting fired is never pleasant. But it’s not usually illegal. If you think you’ve been wrongfully terminated, you should consult an an employment lawyer in Raleigh as soon as possible. Waiting could endanger your right to seek compensation. At Miller Law, we can help you understand whether your firing was illegal and figure out what remedies are available to you.

North Carolina is an at-will employment state—just like every other state except Montana. That means that most employees can be fired for any reason, or no reason at all. (There are a few exceptions – learn more here).

Your firing may have been unfair, but it’s not illegal unless it violates a specific law, violates an employment contract, or runs counter to public policy.

When termination violates the law

Both Federal and North Carolina law provide some limits on an employer’s power to fire employees. These laws generally forbid two kinds of bad conduct: discrimination and retaliation.

Discrimination is prohibited by both state and federal law.

The North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act (N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 143-422.1 to 143-422.3) forbids employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, sex, or disability. Employment discrimination is a broad term that encompasses the entire employee-employer relationship. It includes refusing to hire someone, or treating them differently after hiring, because of a protected trait. And it includes firing someone because of their protected trait.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides a similar set of protections at the federal level. Title VII forbids employment discrimination—in hiring, firing, or treatment during employment—on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, or sex. Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have extended the definition of sex to include discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Other federal laws forbid discrimination on the basis of age and disability.

The state and federal laws are different in one very important respect: the state law does not allow you to sue your employer, but Title VII does. This difference affects how a suit alleging employment discrimination is handled and what you need to do to make sure your suit is valid. If you think you have an employment discrimination case, you’ll want to consult an experienced employment lawyer as soon as possible. Miller Law Group can help you establish whether you have a case and decide how to move forward.

Retaliation is also prohibited by both state and federal law.

Retaliation occurs when your employer punishes you for engaging in specific conduct that is protected by law. Protected conduct includes, for example:

  •     Reporting an OSHA violation, to the state or federal agency or to your employer
  •     Filing a complaint alleging discrimination, with your employer or with a federal or state agency
  •     Asserting a workers’ compensation claim
  •     Reporting your employer’s violation of other laws (such as securities regulations or tax laws)
  •     Reporting issues with your pay to the North Carolina Department of Labor
  •     Filing a lawsuit against your employer

This list is not exhaustive. Generally, your employer cannot fire you for alleging, in good faith, that they have broken the law.

When termination violates an employment contract

Employment contracts that change the at-will relationship are very rare. A termination will not represent breach of contract unless the contract specifies a term of employment OR specifically limits when and why the employee may be terminated. Where any ambiguity exists, North Carolina courts will tend to favor the “at-will” interpretation of the contract.

When termination violates public policy

North Carolina case law allows employees to sue for wrongful termination when the firing violates public policy. A termination violates public policy when it runs contrary to stated public policy, sanctions illegal behavior, or discourages employees from engaging in civic duties.

For instance, a firing that violates the North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act violates the public policy stated in that act. A policy that punishes or terminates employees who draw jury duty interferes with civic duties. And an employer who fires an employee for refusing to engage in illegal or fraudulent activity violates public policy.


Each of these categories of wrongful termination has its own rules and limitations. If you believe you’ve been illegally “let go,” you should contact an experienced wrongful termination attorney from Miller Law Group as soon as possible to protect your rights.