What is employment law?

Employment law is a broad area of federal and state laws that involves the rights of employees and includes constitutional provisions, statutes and regulations that govern relationships between employers and employees, and may also involve ensuring compliance with state and federal regulations.

What types of issues fall under the category of employment and labor law?

Employment lawyers work to ensure employees are treated in a fair and consistent manner and employers comply with all workplace laws and regulations. Examples of issues that fall under this area of law include:

  • Workplace discrimination: If you have been treated less favorably than others because of certain characteristics protected under law, workplace discrimination has occurred. These protected characteristics include gender, age, race, religion, disability, and national origin. 
  • Wrongful termination: This occurs when an employer terminates an employee for an unlawful reason that violates a public policy under state law or a federal law that is incorporated into state law.
  • Sexual harassment: Sexual harassment in the workplace is an illegal form of sex discrimination, and includes requests for sexual favors, unwelcome sexual advances, or other verbal or physical actions of a sexual nature that a reasonable employee would find offensive. 
  • Hostile Work Environment: If an employee experiences a hostile work environment based on race, gender, sexual orientation or religious beliefs, that can be unlawful.
  • Whistleblower protection: State, community college and public-school employees in North Carolina have protection for reporting illegal or unethical activities.  You cannot be fired for your actions and your employer is prohibited from retaliating against you by denying benefits or in any other way. 
  • Contract violations: If you have an employment contract for a specified term, it is a legally binding agreement that may specify what benefits your employer will provide and may state grounds for termination.  A breach of contract could occur if your employer violates the contract’s terms.
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Similar to Civil Rights, employment law involves federal and state laws. Some of the important federal employment laws include:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended in 1991. This federal legislation is the best known of federal employment laws.  It prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, pregnancy, religion and national origin in the terms and conditions of employment, including hiring, promotion, and termination, hostile work environment and harassment.  It requires the filing of an administrative complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before the filing of a lawsuit and has certain caps on damages.
  • 42 U.S.C. § 1981. This law from 1866 prohibits race discrimination in employment and does not involve the EEOC.  It also does not have Title VII’s caps on damages. 
  • 14th Amendment. For public employees, but not for private employees, the equal protection clause of the 14 Amendment to the federal constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, sex and religion.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law prohibits employment discrimination based on a disability and may require an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation of a disability.
  • Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This law requires certain size companies (50 employees in a 75 mile radius) to provide up to 12 weeks of protected leave for an employee who had a serious medical condition or must care for a family member with a serious condition, and includes the right to maternity and paternity leave after the birth of a child.
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA): This law discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, firing, promotion, compensation, and other terms and conditions of employment. 
  • Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This law guarantees payment of the federal minimum wage and of overtime pay (1.5 times the normal hourly pay) for work in excess of 40 hours per week.  It also prohibits retaliation against employees for seeking protection under the law.
  • ERISA. This complex statutory scheme governs the right to benefits that a company offers its employees.  It also prohibits the dismissal of an employee for the purpose of denying that employee a claim to benefits.   
  • Federal Whistleblower Statutes. There are protections for certain federal employees for raising concerns about health and safety issues, and issues of fraud and mismanagement.  

 There are also a series of state laws that protect employees

  • The North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act (NCEEPA) This statute creates a public policy against discrimination based on race, sex, religion, national origin or “handicap”  in the termination of employment.  Any such termination is actionable as a wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, which is a limit on the doctrine of employment at will.  
  • North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (NC REDA). This statute makes it unlawful to terminate an employee for making a complaint regarding or participating in certain protected activities, including filing a worker’s compensation claim, raising health and safety concerns, or wage and  hour complaints, among other protected activities.
  • North Carolina Wage and Hour Act. This statute offers protections beyond the FLSA, including the right to collect wages that have been earned but not paid and that wages be paid at the rate promised.  The term wages is broadly defined to include commissions, bonuses, and non-hourly salary.  
  • N.C. Whistleblower Act: This state protects state, community college and public school employees from retaliation who report concerns of fraud, gross mismanagement and abuse of authority.   It does not apply to private employees, who are protected instead by the common law doctrine of wrongful discharge.
  • Common Law Wrongful Discharge. North Carolina case law recognizes an exception to the doctrine of employment at will, which generally allows an employer to discharge an employee for any reason or no reason at all.   But if a dismissal violates a public policy of the state, then a dismissed employee can sue for wrongful discharge.   Some examples of such public policy violations include firing a truck driver for refusing to drive “off the books” and not log all of their road hours; firing a textile worker for refusing to work for less than minimum wage; firing a nurse for refusing to commit perjury in a medical malpractice case; and firing someone in violation of NCEEPA;
  • N.C. Persons with Disabilities Protection Act: Similar to the ADA, the statute prohibits disability discrimination in employment but only provide injunctive relief – a court order to accommodate a disabled employee or reinstate a terminated disabled employee -- but does not include compensatory damages. 
  • Unemployment Benefits: North Carolina law offers very limited unemployment benefits and companies often challenge a former employee’s right to those benefits, requiring a hearing.

When do you need an employment and labor lawyer?

You may need an employment and labor attorney if an employer has committed unlawful actions that have wrongfully placed you at a disadvantage. Examples of such actions include:

  • Failing to provide the wages and benefits to which you are entitled
  • Violating state or federal laws that were enacted to protect employees
  • Terminating your employment in violation of a public policy of the state – “wrongful discharge”
  • Forcing you to sign an agreement waiving rights to which you are entitled
  • Harassing, discriminating, or retaliating against you

What compensation can you claim for wrongful termination in North Carolina?

In a discrimination or wrongful termination claim, you may be entitled to compensation including lost wages and benefits (“back pay”), damages for emotional harm,   attorney fees under federal laws, punitive damages (designed to punish the defendant), and even reinstatement in your former job or “front pay” or future wages in lieu of reinstatement.

Why you need an employment and labor lawyer

Employment law is a highly specialized and constantly evolving area of the law. This legal field has significant gray areas. If you have an employment or labor situation, your best chance of a favorable outcome is to have an experienced attorney by your side.

Our experience 

Our firm has represented individuals in a range of employment and labor matters – from filing charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), to filing lawsuits in state and federal court and taking those cases through trial and on appeal. We have litigated employment and labor cases before the North Carolina Court of appeals, the North Carolina Supreme Court, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Why choose Tin Fulton Walker & Owen?

We have been listed among “America’s Best Law Firms” for employment law by U.S. News and World Report. Our skillful trial lawyers have a remarkable record of successful advocacy in both state and federal appellate courts. We care about fighting for the underdog and will not hesitate to face large corporations and powerful interests, representing clients all over North Carolina.

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