On Monday, April 24, news broke that two prominent cable news anchors were being terminated by their respective networks. First, Fox News announced that the network would be parting ways with Tucker Carlson. Then, CNN announced it was parting ways with Don Lemon.
Both cable news personalities were seemingly blindsided by the decisions handed down by their respective networks. Carlson reportedly learned of his termination in a phone call on Monday morning, and Lemon tweeted that he learned of his termination from his agent. Fox News announced that Carlson’s last show had been on the preceding Friday, but Carlson gave no indication of this during his Friday show. CNN tweeted that Lemon had mischaracterized his termination, and that Lemon had the opportunity to meet with CNN management but instead chose to tweet his frustrations.
In an ironic twist, both former cable news reporters have hired the same high-profile attorney, Brian Freedman. Freedman has made a name for himself negotiating favorable exit packages for controversial media personalities, including Megyn Kelly’s exit from NBC and Chris Cuomo’s firing from CNN.
That said, Carlson and Lemon are not necessarily guaranteed anything by hiring Freedman. So why hire a lawyer? Presumably, both Lemon and Carlson feel they may have legal claims surrounding their respective terminations.
What Is Wrongful Termination?
Wrongful termination, sometimes referred to as wrongful or illegal discharge, firing, or dismissal, is a claim that can be brought by a terminated employee when their firing violated an employment contract or some public law.
Employment is generally considered at-will, meaning that either the employee or employer can choose to terminate employment for any reason or no reason at all, at any time. Even with at will employment, a terminated employee can still prevail with a wrongful termination claim if they can show that they were fired for an illegal reason, such as discrimination or retaliation.
For employees that have signed employment contracts, employers must honor the terms in those contracts, which can include provisions that establish the former employees’ employment for a set term rather than at-will.
Discrimination and Wrongful Termination
Wrongful termination claims are most often associated when a person is terminated as a result of discrimination on the basis of race, color, natural origin, sex, religion, disability, pregnancy, or age. Termination for discriminatory reasons is not allowed under state and federal laws. In addition to direct termination for discriminatory reasons, a termination prompted by a culture of sexism or racial intolerance can also be discriminatory.
In addition, employers are not allowed to fire employees in retaliation for certain protected activities, such as reporting sexual harassment or suspected violations of law to the employer.
Carlson and Lemon’s Potential Wrongful Termination Cases
In the case of Carlson and Lemon, either or both may believe they were wrongfully terminated. What they believe is not the question – just about everyone who is terminated thinks their employer did so out of reason other than performance. Under the law, in order to prevail on a wrongful termination claim, the terminated employee needs to prove that their termination was either in breach of their employment law contracts, was in violation of state or federal anti-discrimination or other laws, or was in retaliation for protected activities.
So, if Carlson or Lemon have signed employment contracts with terms that were breached by their firings, lawyering up may be a good approach. On the other hand, given the abrupt nature of these firings, Carlson and Lemon may find themselves trying to demonstrate that they were fired in retaliation for their actions.
Regardless of the outcome, Tucker Carlson and Don Lemon have apparently hired Brian Freedman. We will have to wait and see if they chose to pursue wrongful termination claims against their former networks. However, for the record, we may never find out because many termination disputes are settled outside of the public eye or the court system.
Avisen Legal Law Clerk Javier Romay looked at wrongful termination through the lens of celebrity firings to write this article with Avisen Legal’s Kim Lowe. While it is fun to apply the law to current “news” events, many terminated employees and employers grapple with issues of termination every day. We hope this article informs everyday business owners about the wrongful termination.