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Was Your Layoff Legal?

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It every employee's nightmare to be told that he/she has been laid off, and the laid-off employees always feel that they were wronged. I am yet to meet a laid-off employee who says I understand why my company laid me off and they are right to have done so given the circumstances. But, not every layoff is wrong. Knowing how to distinguish between an unfair layoff and an illegal one can help you decide on whether you want to sue your company for it or not.

was your layoff legal?
While most companies offer "at will" jobs, meaning that both the employee and the employer have equal rights to terminate the job without a cause, they still need to follow the state and federal employment laws, especially those related to discrimination, layoff notices, and whistleblowing.

Of these laws, there are five main federal laws that were formulated to protect laid-off employees, and the different states have their own employment laws as well to protect employees against illegal layoff. Hence, to ensure that there was nothing illegal about your layoff, check with an attorney before you decide to go take your employer to court.

Here's a quick look at the five laws you need to refer to first in order to check whether your layoff was legal or not and that there was no discrimination involved:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: This law prohibits employers from making employment decisions on the basis of national origin, pregnancy, race, religion, and sex (not sexual orientation).

Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disability Act of 1990: This law prohibits companies from making decisions on the basis of the disabilities that an employee/a prospective employee may have.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967: this law was formulated in 1967 in order to protect the rights of employees who are 40 years or older in age.

The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act: An extension of the above law, this law protects workers in the age group of 40 or more from a group layoff. Further, this law provides the laid-off employees with additional time to consider the severance waiver offered by the employee. The workers also get a week after signing the waiver to change their mind about it.

The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act: This law is applicable to large employers and covers the guidelines on notifying workers of large layoffs and subsequent plant closures beforehand.

Do note that these laws protect you if there was not even one valid reason for why you were let go. That is, if your employer can prove even on one count that you were not good at your job, the discrimination changes wont stick and you would have wasted your time and money on court proceedings. Therefore, before you even consider suing your employer, sit down and calmly make a list of all the possible reasons that your employer may have to fire you. If the only things that you could come up with were that you are an African American woman and that a white male counterpart of yours who is as good as you still has his job and you don't, you have a strong case against your employer.

If you are not able to figure this out on your own, contact an attorney or the nearest office of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC). An EEOC representative will hear your story out, talk to your employer, and present his findings. If his findings reveal that you are a victim of workplace discrimination, the EEOC will issue a right-to-sue letter that you can take to your lawyer and start the legal proceedings against your employer. However, do note that you have a right to go to court irrespective of the EEOC's findings. The right-to-sue letter from the EEOC will just add weight to your case.

Bear in mind that even if you were laid off illegally, it may be a difficult case to fight in court. Further, the legal proceedings would put a considerable dent in your budget. If the ruling of the case is in your favor, you could claim attorneys' fees, back pay, and damages, but this may take a while as these cases take an average of two to fours years to reach a resolution unless you have very strong evidence condemning your employer, and until then, you are on your own.

Further, be prepared that during the litigation, every aspect of your life can be put on public display. So, go ahead only if you are ready to discuss your work history, personal history, any prior criminal charges that you may have, your financial condition, your spouse's tax return, and so on, on the stand.

At the end of it all, although an attorney can check whether your layoff was legal or not and what your chances of winning a discrimination case against your employer would be, you have to go through the courtroom dram. Think carefully whether the returns would be worth putting yourself and your family through the litigation process and whether you have enough funds to support yourself through it.
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