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How do you know if you were illegally terminated?

Upon getting fired, very few people say, "Yeah, I deserved that." Most people believe their termination was unfair. However, was it illegal? That's a completely different question. West Virginia, like most states, has what's called "at-will employment." That means that either the employee or employer can end the relationship without cause or notice for a variety of reasons -- or for no specific reason.

However, there are times when firing an employee is illegal. This is known as "wrongful termination." Let's look at a few examples:

Discrimination: It's illegal to fire someone based on a characteristic that is considered protected under federal and/or state law. Here in West Virginia, those include race, gender, pregnancy, age, national origin, disability and even genetic background (such as if you took a genetic test that shows you have a greater-than-average risk of developing cancer).

Retaliation: If you reported illegal conduct in the workplace, such as harassment or discrimination or some other type of illegal activity you witnessed or were asked to participate in, you can't be fired as a result.

Participating in "protected concerted activity:" This refers to employee discussions about wages and workplace conditions. The purpose of this protection is to allow workers, whether they belong to a union or not, to talk about ways to improve their workplace. If you have a habit of standing around complaining about your boss, however, that may not qualify as protected activity.

You have a contract that requires "cause:" If you have an employment agreement, or perhaps even if it's a company policy, that you can't be fired without a valid reason, your termination may be illegal if it doesn't meet the company's definition of cause. That usually involves things like poor performance or intentional misconduct.

If you believe you may have been wrongfully terminated, it's wise to seek legal guidance as soon as possible. An experienced attorney can provide guidance on whether or not you have a case and, if so, how best to proceed.

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