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Wrongful termination—the difference between unfair and illegal

Updated: Aug 16, 2023

woman who has been wrongfully terminated looks at laptop

Many terminations are unfair. But when does an unfair termination become an illegal termination?

The first thing to know is that Maryland, like most states, presumes that employment is "at-will," which means you can be fired at any time and for any reason. But over the past century, state and federal laws have chipped away at this principal, putting limits on the reasons you can be fired by an employer. For example, you probably know (even if you can't identify the law that says so) that you can't be fired because of your sex/gender, age, or race.

But here's where things get a little confusing. While terminating someone because of their sex or race is certainly wrongful (and illegal)—it's not always "wrongful termination," legally speaking. In Maryland, wrongful termination is a "last resort" legal claim, which means that you can only bring a wrongful termination claim if no other employment statute applies.

"wrongful termination is a 'last resort' legal claim, which means that you can only bring a wrongful termination claim if no other employment statute applies"

And because there are tons of state, federal, and even local employment statutes covering things like sex or race discrimination in the workplace—far fewer Maryland workers file wrongful termination lawsuits than file lawsuits under Title VII or Maryland's Title 20.

So, what's a wrongful termination claim good for? As it turns out, quite a bit! Maryland employment lawyers often use wrongful termination claims to hold smaller employers accountable, because most employment statutes only apply to employers with at least 15 employees. The elements of a wrongful termination claim are also relatively straightforward. In order to establish a claim for wrongful discharge, a plaintiff must show by a preponderance of the evidence that:

  1. the employee was discharged;

  2. the discharge violated a clear mandate of public policy; and,

  3. there was a nexus between the employee's conduct and the employer's decision to terminate the employee.

See Adler v. American Standard Corp., 291 Md. 31 (Md. 1981). Despite being often misunderstood, a wrongful termination claim in Maryland is an important legal tool for Maryland employment lawyers.

For a detailed explanation of wrongful termination in Maryland, check out our wrongful termination page. If you've been wrongfully terminated, contact us today for a free, confidential consultation with a Maryland wrongful termination lawyer.


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