Protections for Public Employees from Wrongful Termination

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Lauren Blair has been practicing law for more than 25 years. Lauren has been a licensed member in good standing of the Illinois bar since 1994, the year she graduated from Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law. Prior to law school, Lauren obtained a Bachelor of Arts in government from Cornell University. For the first 20 years of her practice, she worked in mid-size l...

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UPDATED: Jul 14, 2021

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Wrongful termination can happen to both private and public employees in the United States. For both public and private sector employees there are laws against hostile workplace environments, harassment at work, and prohibitions against being fired without cause. Public sector employees have greater protections under the U.S. Constitution. This is because when the government is the employer, the government must not violate any constitutional rights of its employees, just as the government may not violate the constitutional rights of citizens. In other words, a different set of additional rules apply in wrongful termination cases where the government or a government agency was the employer.

Statutory Protection against Wrongful Termination

For public sector employees, the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, national origin, political affiliation or sexual orientation. The act was originally written to reform the federal civil service system. It created the Office of Personnel Management, the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Together these offices manage human resources in the federal government. They protect employees’ rights to employment and promotions without discrimination and harassment. They also give federal workers the right to organize in unions and dispute employer practices.

The CSRA applies to hiring practices and termination procedures. It, along with the Whistleblower Protection Act, prevents employers from retaliating against employees who complain about discrimination or point out other misconduct in the federal workplace. In the event that these laws do not provide complete protection in the workplace, they give victims a legal basis to sue. Each law has civil remedies for employees who can prove they were terminated as retaliation or for other illegal reasons. The remedies can range from reinstatement into the same or similar position to monetary damages.

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Constitutional Protections for Public Employees

Public sector or government employees have additional protection under the Constitution. These protections apply to federal, state and local workers. Generally, the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit the government from depriving anyone of “life, liberty or property” without due process of law. This was made clear in the U.S. Supreme Court case Cleveland v. Board of Education. The court held that government employees are considered to have a property interest in their jobs, and the right to due process places significant restrictions on arbitrary dismissals unrelated to job performance.

The Fourth Amendment is best known for protecting the public from unlawful searches and seizures by the police. However, it applies in the workplace as well. A government employer cannot use material taken from an employee in termination procedures. This extends to email traffic and other correspondence. There are a few limited exceptions to this prohibition. Usually, these exceptions have to do with public safety or national security.

Additionally, the First Amendment protects employees from being wrongfully fired for speech, writing or opinions expressed at work. The speech is protected if it is related to your status as a citizen and is not a matter of public concern. For instance if your email or blog complains about your homeowner’s association, your boss cannot fire you if he or she happens to be president of that association. On the other hand, if you are a postal service employee and your email or blog contains sensitive information or criticisms about processes in the service, this could be just cause for termination.

Getting Help

If you feel that you have been wrongfully terminated, contact an employment attorney today. An employment attorney can review the facts of your claim and advise you on the best steps to take in order to resolve your dispute.  

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