In lots of ways, Googling legal terms can be like Googling medical terms. You might get an amalgamation of concepts that might not make a whole lot of sense when put together. Therefore, there’s lots of information out there that isn’t legally inaccurate, but needs to be explained by an attorney with respect to your specific circumstances to create an accurate picture. So, sometimes clients will come to us with an idea of what they think their claim might be, but not have the exact verbiage correct. And that’s okay! That’s what we as lawyers are here for: to provide explanations to our clients and help them navigate the daunting American legal system.
A lot of our practice as employment attorneys revolves around the ending of an employment relationship. This usually falls in to two categories: wrongful termination or constructive discharge. But they are not interchangeable terms, and it is important to understand that when embarking on an employment case.
Wrongful termination – for cases where the employee was fired.
Wrongful termination occurs when an employer fires an employee in violation of the law or employment contract. It means that the employer has taken an unlawful action in ending the employment relationship. Texas is an at-will state, which means that the employment relationship can be ended at any time for any reason. However, it cannot be for an unlawful reason—giving rise to an unlawful termination claim.
Wrongful termination can be based on various factors, including discrimination (race, sex, age, religion, etc.), retaliation (for engaging in legally protected activities like reporting harassment or safety concerns), or breach of an employment contract (as opposed to an at-will employment agreement).
If an employee believes they were wrongfully terminated, they may have grounds to file a lawsuit against their former employer to seek damages or reinstatement.
However, the legal claim itself won’t be for wrongful termination. The claim would be brought under the statute that defines the unlawful basis for termination. For example, in a case where someone was fired for disclosing their pregnancy to their employer and requesting leave, the claims would technically be brought as a sex discrimination and/or retaliation claim in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The idea is still the same, though: the case is about a wrongful termination in violation of someone’s legally-protected rights.
Constructive Discharge – for cases where the employee quit.
Constructive discharge, on the other hand, is a situation where an employee resigns from their job because the working conditions have become so intolerable that they feel they have no other choice but to quit.
In Texas, as in many other jurisdictions, constructive discharge is treated similarly to wrongful termination in terms of potential legal remedies. If an employee can prove that they were constructively discharged due to unlawful or intolerable working conditions (such as harassment, discrimination, or a hostile work environment), they may have grounds for a lawsuit against their employer.
A typical instance of constructive discharge is when the employee is faced with an unacceptable decision: quit or be fired. In either instance, you were going to have to leave the workplace. However, the reasons for being offered that inacceptable ultimatum must still be tied to a legally protected avenue (i.e., your status in a protected category or engaging in protected activity).
However, the threshold to prove constructive discharge is much higher than to prove wrongful termination. Put very delicately, constructive discharge cases are difficult. To establish a constructive discharge claim, the employee typically needs to show that the employer’s actions or conditions were severe enough that a reasonable person in their situation would have felt compelled to resign. This is not whether or not the person who quit thought their decision to do so was reasonable by a subjective measure, but an objective evaluation regarding the decision to quit under those circumstances. Texas (and the Fifth Circuit) are hostile jurisdictions to constructive discharge claims.
These are all very short and simple explanations. As with everything in the law, there are more nuances to these concepts, how each may be applied depends on the facts of each case. (I know, a lawyer saying it depends, how groundbreaking.)
Therefore, if you are still employed but are being subjected to discrimination and retaliation in the workplace, it is important to consult with an employment attorney to discuss your options going forward prior to resigning so you may make an informed decision on how to proceed.
If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, or wonder if your potential resignation would be considered a constructive discharge, contact me in Dallas or one of our other talented Texas employment lawyers in Austin or Houston today.