North Carolina is an at-will employment state, meaning employers can generally hire and fire employees for any reason, no reason, a good reason, a bad reason, a stupid reason, or even a wrong reason. However, there are a few ways you can bring a wrongful termination lawsuit in North Carolina.
Discrimination is prohibited by federal laws including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Americans with Disabilities Act (the "ADA"), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (the "ADEA"). These protect classes of individuals from termination based on their membership in that class.
Title VII covers discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. The ADA and ADEA cover disability-based and age-based discrimination, respectively. All complaints under any of these laws must be filed with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (the "EEOC") within 180 days of the discriminatory event.
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 covers race-based discrimination only, but has the advantage of a FOUR-YEAR statute of limitations and no EEOC filing requirement.You simply file directly in federal court. This is helpful if you miss your filing deadline with the EEOC on a racial discrimination case.
Family Medical Leave Act (Federal)
The Family Medical Leave Act (the "FMLA") covers private employers with fifty (50) or more employees. To qualify for FMLA leave, an employee must have worked for his or her employer for at least twelve months (although not consecutively), and must have worked 1250 hours for that employer in the preceding twelve months.
The FMLA grants employees up to twelve weeks in any twelve-month period. This leave can be used for taking care of a serious health condition (the employee's or that of a spouse, child, or parent), family military leave, or expanding the employee's family.
If the employee is able to return to work before his or her FMLA time is exhausted, he or she must be returned to the same or a nearly identical position. If the company does not allow this and tells the employee that he or she cannot return, the employee may bring suit under the FMLA.
North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act
North Carolina's Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act ("REDA") protects employees from retaliation when they participate in certain activities. The main activities covered are filing, participating in, or testifying in a worker's compensation claim or a complaint relating to North Carolina's Occupational Safety and Health Act.
REDA complaints are brought to the North Carolina Department of Labor. The complaint must be filed within 180 days, and will result in action by the Department or the issuance of a right to sue letter. This letter allows you to bring your case in North Carolina courts.
North Carolina Public Policy Exception
North Carolina recognizes a public policy exception to its at-will employment doctrine. No employer is allowed to fire an employee in violation of North Carolina public policy. This, of course, raises the question "What is North Carolina public policy?" In large part, the courts are still working that out on a case-by-case basis.
Employers are not allowed to terminate their employees for complying with a legally-required duty such as jury duty giving truthful testimony in court. Several laws which have been recognized as expressing North Carolina public policy are the North Carolina Workers' Compensation Act, the North Carolina Wage and Hour Act, and the North Carolina Constitution.
The North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act (the "EEPA") acts as a miniature Title VII, stating that it is against North Carolina public policy to discriminate based on "race, religion, color, national origin, age, sex or handicap" if an employer has 15 or more employees. This is enforced by bringing a public policy claim with the EEPA as the public policy basis.
Remedies for Violations
The remedies for violations of these laws is determined law-by-law. However, a wrongfully terminated employee can generally recover lost wages, other incidental related monetary damages, attorney's fees, and costs of court. These remedies are different in some cases (for example, the FMLA has a damage-doubling provision in many situations), so no precise formula is available to calculate what an employee may be owed.