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Retaliation and wrongful termination

Workers are sometimes in an uncomfortable position. The power dynamic of a supervisor and employee can create a situation where it’s difficult to speak up against injustice. It’s an employee’s right to a safe workplace. This means the work environment should be free of discrimination and harassment, and workers also need to be allowed time off when appropriate through a FMLA leave.

If an employee speaks up and utilizes these rights, it’s illegal for employers to retaliate. Retaliation is when a company punishes an employee for the complaint, through termination, negative reviews, reassignment or other discipline. Many employees fear they’ll be fired if they speak up, which is unlawful.

Shifting the burden

Professional organization The Society for Human Resource Management uses the example of Stewart v. Wells Fargo Bank, a 2017 lawsuit where an employee was fired for taking a medical leave. The employee, Stewart, took a company-approved leave one week before she was to be issued a formal warning for poor performance. When her supervisor deemed she still wasn’t performing up to par after her leave, his email to HR mentioned job performance but also directly mentioned the leave of absence.

Because the email mentions the leave in a suggestive fashion, it implies that it was part of the reason for firing her. While Wells Fargo countered with issues in Stewart’s job performance, the court sided with Stewart because it’s common for an employer to shift the burden against a discrimination claim.

Words matter

In Stewart v. Wells Fargo Bank, a single email gave proof that Stewart’s leave was a reason for her termination. If you’ve stood up for your rights at work and faced an unfair or unusual response, an employment attorney can review your case to see if, like Stewart, there was an ulterior motive.

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