Wrongful discharge or wrongful termination is an employee’s claim that his former employer fired him or here for discriminatory purposes or otherwise in violation of public policy, or some Federal or State law. Many times, the employee is constructively rather than directly discharged. In short, the employer makes the employee’s work life so miserable that she quits.
AT-Will Employment in New Mexico
Because New Mexico is an at-will employment state, the first issue in a wrongful discharge claims is typically whether or not there was an employment contract. In the United States, at-will employment arose from the notion of freedom of contract. Under the freedom of contract theory, both the employer and employee can terminate the employment relationship at any time for any reason that is not illegal or contrary to the employment contract. Thus, even at-will employees can sue for wrongful discharge when the discharge is based upon illegal grounds. In fact, most wrongful discharge claims arise from employer-employee relationships where the employment is “at-will.”
Wrongful discharge goes beyond instances when an employer outright fires you. In fact, the most common grounds for wrongful discharge of an at-will employee are constructive discharge and defamation. Wrongful discharge does not have to be a direct discharge as in the case of “you’re fired”. For instance, constructive discharge and defamation are themselves indirect forms of termination.
Constructive discharge occurs when the employee feels compelled to quit her job because the employer has made or allowed the employee’s working conditions to become so intolerable that a reasonable employee would have resigned. Defamation occurs in the employment context when an employer falsely and intentionally defames the employee and uses that as an excuse to fire her.
When this constructive discharge is based on illegal discrimination toward a protected class, race, gender, disability, age and national origin, there may be both a Title VII Civil Rights Claim and a claim under the New Mexico Human Rights Act. Beyond Title VII and the Human Rights Act, discharge on the basis of a protected class is strictly prohibited under a variety of federal laws.
Implied Employment Contract
If you do have an employment contract that allows for termination only “for good cause” or for reasons stated in the contract, then you were not an at-will employee. An offer letter or other writing that gives you assurances about your continued employment may also rise to the level of a contract thus giving rise to a breach of not contract claim rather than a wrongful discharge claim. In these situations, a contract may be implied by the court.
Like all employment cases, there are deadlines to bringing a claim. To avoid missing deadline and possibly barring your claim, you should seek the counsel of an experienced New Mexico attorney for an evaluation of your claims.