It’s not uncommon for people to misunderstand the concept of at-will employment. Many take the phrase to mean that a person may be terminated at any time, for any reason at all. This is only true in certain cases and is emphatically not true in others. South Carolina law lays out specific situations in which a person may not be terminated. If an individual is terminated in one of these ways, a civil cause of action for wrongful termination may result.
Illegal or Unethical Firing
By far the most common type of wrongful termination is illegal or unethical firing. While the categories under federal law may differ, South Carolina law explicitly forbids termination on the basis of “race, color, religion,” national origin, age (if over 40), disability, and sex, which also includes harassment and pregnancy discrimination. As of this writing, South Carolina has no protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, though in many situations the federal Title VII will apply, which does extend to these categories of mistreatment.
If you are terminated and you have reason to believe that your membership in a particular class might have been the reason, you are able to file a Charge of Discrimination with the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (SCHAC). However, be advised that the anti-discrimination regulations do not apply to every employer in the state—only to employers who have more than the minimum number of employees. Depending on the type of discrimination you are alleging, a company must have anywhere between four and twenty employees before the SCHAC regulations will apply to them.
Excused Absences & Breaks
Other common factors in wrongful termination suits are disagreements about break times and excused absences from work. South Carolina laws protect some reasons for being absent from one’s job, such as jury duty or family leave. If an employer terminates you for exercising one of these rights, you have a case under both state and federal law. Jury duty in particular may be punishable by special damages under South Carolina law, because serving on a jury is a civic duty rather than a personal choice.
Breaks during the work day, by comparison, are not protected under state law, though some other states have written them into their own labor law. Federal law, however, holds that if an employer chooses to grant 20-minute breaks (or shorter), then employees must be paid for those breaks. Any time where an employee must work, even if an employer writes it off as a “break,” must be paid.
Ask an Employment Lawyer
Despite the colloquial way most people discuss at-will employment, there are situations where termination is not only unfair but against the law. If you have questions, consulting an experienced employment discrimination lawyer can help. Attorney A. Christopher Potts and his Charleston firm of Hitchcock & Potts handle nothing but employment law cases and will always work hard to get you an equitable result. Contact us today to set up an initial appointment.