No one wants his or her dental practice to be on the receiving end of a wrongful termination lawsuit. However, these types of claims are more frequent than you might expect. First and foremost, if your practice is facing such a suit, do not panic. By taking the time to understand the types of claims that can be made against your practice, the way the legal process works, and future preventative measures, you will be prepared to combat any claims.
Simply because someone has filed suit against you does not mean that you or your dental practice has actually done anything wrong. Anyone can file a lawsuit against anyone for any reason. That does not mean, necessarily, that the claim will hold up in a court of law.
As a result, you should make certain that you do not immediately give in to any demands requested of you by anyone without first contacting a dental attorney. Additionally, you should not delete anything, but should also gather any relevant materials together for your legal counsel to review. Once you have obtained an attorney, he or she will be able to guide you through understanding the claims against you, the possible damages owed, and the particulars of navigating a lawsuit.
The Types of Claims
There are generally only a few types of claims that terminated employees can make against their former employers to recover against them. Wrongful termination can often be difficult to prove, but when claims are successful, they usually succeed because the employer committed one of the following offenses: discrimination in violation of a protected status, violation of an employment contract, or violation of public policy.
Under federal law, there are certain protected statuses that an employer cannot use as the basis for termination of an employee. Examples of these include gender, race, religion, pregnancy, marital status, disability, and sexual orientation. Therefore, if an employer bases a termination decision on any of those factors, the employee may have a valid claim. In addition, because this type of action can be reviewed at the federal level, the court costs and complexities could potentially be significantly more onerous than that of other types of claims.
Another valid claim that an employee might have against his or her employer is violation of an employment contract. Many states are considered to be “at-will,” which means that an employer can fire an employee for any reason, at any time, with or without notice. The flip side to this is that an employee also has the right to quit for any reason, at any time, with or without notice.
The exception to the “at-will” rule is if there is an employment contract. This is where things can get tricky. An employment contract can be verbal or written, or even implied. As an employer, it is safer to avoid any situation that might imply the creation of a contract, unless you feel that you would like to be held to a contract or that you would like to hold employees to a contract.
One other claim that an employee might be able to recover under is when an employer has violated public policy. Though “violation of public policy” could be a broad argument in many directions, there are several examples that this typically includes.
First, firing an employee because he or she reported an employer for some other violation (ie, unsafe workplace conditions) is one example of violating public policy.
Second, a violation of public policy can arise when an employee files a worker’s compensation claim against an employer when he or she was injured on the job, but the employer subsequently terminates the employee as a direct result of that claim.
A third example of violating public policy is when an employee refuses to engage in an activity that is illegal, and as a result, the employer fires that employee for failure to comply.
The common thread to keep an eye on through these violations is primarily the retaliatory aspect of the terminations.
If it becomes apparent that an employee may have a valid claim against you, there are several types of damages that might be sought. Most commonly, terminated employees will seek any pay that is lost as a result of the termination. This can include back pay, future wage loss, or loss of benefits. The benefits can extend from health insurance to retirement benefits and even fringe benefits such as stock options.
The next type of damages that are often sought are damages for emotional distress. These damages are relatively self-explanatory but can vary from state to state in their standards of proof. One last means of recovery that a terminated employee might seek is simply the reinstatement of their job. This can be uncomfortable for all parties involved, however, and may not be the best outcome.
Overall, most wrongful termination suits are resolved through settlement outside of court. This is often to minimize costs and publicity.
What You Could Do
If you have made it through combatting claims and damages and hopefully come out unscathed, your next steps should aim to prevent any future wrongful termination lawsuits. The best outcomes result from process and documentation.
By providing employees with an employee handbook that contains all procedures and processes of employment, you have provided them with both the rules and consequences that they must abide by. This handbook should include information about performance evaluations, consequences for insubordination, and clarity on whether employment contracts exist.
In addition to an employee handbook, personnel files should be kept with records of those evaluations or documentation of any disciplinary issues. By maintaining a record of all issues, it will likely be harder for a terminated employee to prove that he or she was fired because of other reasons.
While facing a wrongful termination lawsuit can have you concerned about the future of you and your dental practice, understanding the types of claims that are generally recoverable, knowing what the end result might be so far as damages go, and working to prevent future mishaps should make your path towards resolution much easier. Overall, consulting a dental attorney to accompany you through each of the potential steps of a wrongful termination suit can help you truly feel secure in your next actions.
Mr. Oromchian, JD, LLM, is one of the nation’s leading dental lawyers on topics relevant to dentists. He is the founder of Dental and Medical Counsel PC, which is regarded as one of the preeminent dental law firms devoted to dental entrepreneurs. He is also recognized as an exceptional speaker and educator. Additionally, he is the author of The Strategic Dentist, which serves as a guide to dentists looking to purchase or start their own practice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.