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The Difference Between Wrongful Termination and Lawful Termination

On Behalf of | Oct 12, 2021 | Firm News

There are a lot of reasons that someone could lose their job. Perhaps the company was downsizing, or you got in a fight with your boss. In general, most reasons given by the employer for termination do not create a wrongful termination, even if you do not agree with the decision, or the reasons or think it is unfair. An unfair decision is not necessarily an illegal decision.

This is in large part because Illinois is an “at-will” state. That means that both the employer and employee can end the working relationship for virtually any reason they want, and even if there is no reason at all. Unfair terminations are not necessarily illegal unless the true motive is based on illegal discrimination or illegal retaliation. Showing favoritism for a friend or fellow member of the bowling team, for example, maybe unfair, but it is not illegal.

But if the favoritism was based on race, or gender, or religion, the becomes a wrongful termination which is illegal. In that situation, you may have legal options to get your job back or get the wages that you would have received if you had not been terminated.

What Is Wrongful Termination?

The most common reason that wrongful termination cases arise is when the reason for the termination was based on illegal discrimination. An employer cannot fire you for any reason related to your status as a member of a protected class. Protected classes in Illinois include:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • National Origin
  • Citizenship status
  • Ancestry
  • Age (for those 40 and over)
  • Marital status
  • Physical or mental disability
  • Military status
  • Arrest record
  • Sexual orientation

In addition to discriminatory wrongful termination, a wrongful termination case might arise in a few other limited circumstances as well.

Breach of Contract

If you have an employment agreement that limits your employer’s ability to terminate you except for “cause,” then you may have a claim for breach of contract if the employer’s reasons for the termination do not meet the definition of just cause, or if the employer cannot prove that you actually engaged in the conduct that is alleged to constitute just cause.You may be able to bring a lawsuit to request damages for that breach.


The employer cannot terminate you in retaliation for making a legally protected complaint.

Examples of a legally protected complaint include the following:

  • Complaints of illegal discrimination
  • Whistleblower complaints about illegal or potentially illegal actions
  • Making a claim for workers compensation benefits due to a work-related injury
  • Complaints about an unsafe work area

Wrongful termination and unfair termination are not the same things. If you have been terminated and want to learn more about your legal rights, contact our team at Goldman & Ehrlich: 312-332-6733