A very common question we get is this: is it wrongful termination if my employer terminates me based on a false accusation? Almost any person would be upset if someone falsely accused them of misconduct and an employer chose to terminate them because of the accusation, especially if the employee doesn’t believe the employer did a thorough or fair investigation. Despite this fact, in most cases being terminated based on a false accusation is not wrongful termination.
False Accusations Are Common
Unfortunately, false accusations occur often in the workplace. For whatever reason, a co-worker might not like you; a manager or supervisor might want an excuse to fire you; or a customer or client might tell your employer you did something you didn’t do. It’s the nature of working with other people who often have competing interests, misunderstandings, and often close working relationships.
False Accusations and At-Will Employment
In Nevada, most employment is “at-will,” meaning your employer can terminate you for almost any reason. There are a number of exceptions to this general rule. For example, your employer can’t discriminate against you based on a protected class, such as age, religion, or disability, and your employer can’t retaliate against you for complaining about discrimination or unsafe work conditions. However, terminating an employee based on a false accusation isn’t an exception to at-will employment.
If someone accuses you of committing some type of misconduct (theft, tardiness, harassment, etc.), your employer can terminate you based on that accusation, whether or not it’s true. It doesn’t matter who the accuser is or if she or he has a reputation for not telling the truth. It also doesn’t matter whether your employer conducts a fair and thorough investigation before firing you or doesn’t conduct an investigation at all.
Unless your employer violates an employment contract or promises made in a company handbook, or uses the false accusation to cover up an illegal reason for terminating you, there’s no law that prevents your employer from terminating you based on a false accusation. As we often explain to people who meet with us, if your employer fired you because of a false accusation, their decision might certainly be unfair, unethical, and even immoral, but that doesn’t make it an illegal termination.
If Someone Makes a False Statement Against You Is That Defamation?
Defamation is a false statement made to a third party that damages your career or reputation. However, false statements are often “privileged” in employment when they are “intracorporate communications,” meaning made within the regular course of business. So a co-worker’s or supervisor’s false accusation made against you within the company while doing business for the company could be privileged (there is an exception) and, thus, would not count as defamation.
Because of this privilege, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be able to sue the company for defamation and you may or may not be able to sue the person who made the accusation. If the person who made the accusation doesn’t work for the employer, or said it while not on the job, then the chances of the statement not being privileged are greater. Keep in mind that even if you have a good claim of defamation against in individual, that person might not have any money to collect and proving the claim with sufficient evidence might be difficult.
Unfortunately, in most cases there’s nothing we can do to help employees who are terminated based on a false accusation. However, if you believe you might have a case we can do a consultation to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of your potential case.