When is a Federal Employee’s Termination Considered “Wrongful?”

September 29, 2023
The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford

Federal employees are entitled to several job-related protections. This includes not only many of the same protections afforded to employees in the private sector but also many protections that are unique to the federal workforce.

But, despite these protections, federal employees can still face wrongful termination. Federal employers can – and do – fire employees for improper reasons and without following the requisite procedures. In these situations, it is up to federal employees to stand up for their rights by taking appropriate legal action.

5 Types of Wrongful Termination in the Federal Employment Sector

When can you file a claim for wrongful termination as a federal employee? Here is an overview of the five main types of wrongful termination in the federal employment sector:

1. Discriminatory Termination

Federal employers are prohibited from terminating employees on discriminatory grounds. A federal employee’s termination is considered discriminatory if it is based on a personal characteristic that is protected under federal law. These personal characteristics include:

  • Age (for federal employees age 40 or older)
  • Color
  • Disability
  • Gender and gender identity
  • Genetic information
  • National Origin
  • Pregnancy
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sex and sexual orientation

Proving a discriminatory termination requires evidence that you were singled out or selected for termination based on your membership in a protected class—simply being a member of a protected class is not enough. Depending on the circumstances at hand, our attorneys may be able to use various forms of evidence to prove that the decision to end your federal employment was made on a discriminatory basis.

2. Retaliatory Termination

Federal employees are also protected against retaliatory termination. In short, your federal employer cannot terminate you based on your decision to either (i) report fraud, waste or abuse through the proper government channels, (ii) report harassment or other forms of improper conduct, or (iii) exercise your rights as a federal employee (i.e., your right to take job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)).

When reporting misconduct or exercising your legal rights, it is important to make sure you take all of the necessary steps to do so properly. The federal anti-retaliation protections don’t apply in all circumstances, and there are specific requirements for securing the protections afforded by the FMLA and other applicable laws. An experienced federal employment lawyer can help you here as well.

3. Termination Involving a Prohibited Personnel Practice (PPP)

Many federal wrongful termination cases involve prohibited personnel practices (PPP). These are employment-related practices that violate federal workers’ rights—whether they result in termination, demotion or other adverse employment action. Along with discrimination and retaliation, common prohibited personnel practices cited in federal wrongful termination cases include:

  • Terminating federal employees based on inappropriate recommendations (i.e., terminating an employee in order to hire someone else who was recommended based on his or her political affiliation to a supervisor or other superior).
  • Terminating a federal employee based on the employee’s refusal to engage in coerced political activity (i.e., to contribute to a campaign or vote a certain way).
  • Terminating a federal employee in order to grant an unauthorized advantage to another employee or job applicant.
  • Terminating a federal employee in order to hire a relative of a supervisor or other superior (nepotism).
  • Terminating a federal employee in violation of merit system principles (i.e., without providing adequate notice or an opportunity to be heard).

These are just examples. Prohibited personnel practices can take many other forms, and all types of PPP can directly or indirectly lead to a federal employee’s firing. Here, too, various forms of evidence may be available to prove wrongful termination, and a prompt and thorough investigation is crucial for assessing a terminated employee’s legal rights.

4. Failure to Provide Due Process

When taking disciplinary action against federal employees—up to and including termination of employment—federal employers must strictly adhere to the relevant procedural requirements. Even if an employee’s firing would otherwise be justified, failure to provide due process may entitle the employee to remedies for wrongful termination.

What due process is required? The answer to this question may depend on a federal employee’s position within the government, his or her tenure of employment, and various other factors. If you believe that you may have been denied due process before losing your federal job, you should speak with a federal employment lawyer to determine if you have grounds to seek reinstatement.

5. Pretextual Firings and False Claims

Wrongful termination cases can also involve pretextual firings and false claims. A claimed justification for an employee’s termination is a pretext if it is nothing more than an excuse for a discriminatory or retaliatory firing. In some cases, supervisors and other senior personnel will include false statements and allegations in employees’ performance reviews or disciplinary action forms in an attempt to justify a pretextual termination. Lack of substantiating documentation, a history of positive performance reviews, and various other forms of evidence may be available to prove wrongful termination in this scenario.

Regardless of the circumstances involved, if you recently lost your federal job and have reason to believe that your termination was wrongful, you should consult with an attorney about your legal rights. An experienced federal employment attorney will be able to evaluate the circumstances of your termination in light of the laws, rules and procedures that apply to your former federal employer. Based on this evaluation, you can then make an informed decision about how to move forward. Wrongfully terminated federal employees may be entitled to reinstatement, back pay and various other remedies; and, as a wrongfully terminated employee, it is important to make sure that your former federal employer is held accountable.

Discuss Your Rights with a Federal Employment Attorney in Confidence

Do you need to know more about filing a wrongful termination claim against a federal agency or other federal employer? If so, we encourage you to contact us promptly for a confidential consultation. To speak with an experienced federal employment attorney at The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford as soon as possible, call 410-514-6099 or request an appointment online today.