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You are Here: Home > Glossary

Legal Glossary

This Legal Glossary defines legal and other terms appearing in the content here at EmployeeIssues.com, in plain English and in relation to usage. Each defined term is highlighted like this throughout EmployeeIssues.com content, to let you know that it is linked directly to its definition below.

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Act
The documented result of a formal process by congress or state legislatures, designed to establish a new statute or change (amend) an old one. Each of the Federal discrimination acts is an example. Compare to Bill.

Actionable
A basis for legal action, such as a filing a lawsuit in court, or a charge or complaint with an enforcing government agency; for example, an employer's blatant violation of a labor law is actionable.

Adjudicate
To resolve judicially, such as through a court judge or trial by jury.

Administrative Law Judge
A presumably impartial official who presides over administrative-law proceedings with the authority to make decisions that are legally binding, similar to a civil court judge. (Administrative law regulates government agencies.) For example, if a state unemployment office denies your claim for unemployment benefits, you likely have the right to appeal the denial in a hearing before an administrative law judge. (However, you might first have to exhaust other avenues of appeal provided by the unemployment office.) Called an administrative judge for short. Abbreviation is ALJ.

Allege
To accuse before proving with evidence. Allegation is the noun for this verb.

Arbitrator
A presumably neutral third party who helps to resolve disputes between employers and employees, employers and unions or employees and unions during arbitration, and whose final decisions are legally binding. Compare to Mediator.

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Bargaining Unit
A group of employees who share a unionized workplace, perform like job duties, and likely share similar interests when it comes to pay, hours and other working conditions. A bargaining unit typically works under a collective bargaining agreement. A bargaining unit might include nonunion employees who are entitled to many of the same union rights as union employees under the agreement, such as taking work breaks.

Bill
A written proposal or draft submitted to a legislative body (e.g., U.S. Senate or House of Representatives) for consideration as a new or amended Act.

Bona Fide
Absent of fraud or deceit; lawful, legal, genuine, authentic, honest, true or sincere.

Breach
Violation of a law, principle, standard or obligation. For example, ignoring a contractual obligation might be breach of contract. See also Collective Bargaining Agreement, Explicit Contract and Implied Contract.

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Class Action
A legal action, such as a lawsuit, initiated by one or more individuals on behalf of themselves and other individuals with like interests (the "class"). After a judge grants class-action status to a lawsuit, members of the class will be notified and will have the option to join the lawsuit or decline. Lawyers typically take class-action lawsuits on a contingency basis.

Clause
A distinct section, condition or requirement stipulated in a legal document, such as an employment agreement or contract. See also Collective Bargaining Agreement and Explicit Contract.

Cloture
Closing or limiting debate on a bill by a legislative body, such as Congress. A cloture motion must pass to avoid a filibuster and move toward a vote on a bill.

Code
A collection of statutes or rules and regulations that enforce statutes, or all three combined.

Coerce
To force or compel to perform an act or make a choice by threat. Compare to Duress.

Collective Bargaining Agreement
An explicit contract that establishes the terms and conditions of employment, negotiated by union representatives and employers who employ members of the same union. After negotiations, union members typically have the opportunity to accept or decline new collective bargaining agreements through a voting process. Collective bargaining agreements may expand the minimum provisions or make up for their absence in Federal and state, labor and employment laws. For example, if state employment laws do not require employers to give employee rest or meal breaks, then collective bargaining agreements may do so. Compare to Implied Contract.

Common Law
Also called case law, caselaw or decisional law, it's a generally-accepted body of law based on the outcome of court cases. Consequently, alleged violations of common law typically must go through the courts for resolution. Compare to Doctrine, Public Policy and Precedent.

Compensatory
Payment in some form as compensation, such as for damages suffered or time worked.

Contingency
When attorneys wait to collect their fees until after they win cases or settle them out of court. Typically, attorneys charge contingency fees at rates ranging from 25 to 40 percent of the awards they win for their clients. (Fees might be limited to lower dollar amounts for certain cases by state laws.) Alternately, they might simply wait to collect their due until the courts or government agencies award reimbursement of legal fees. Attorneys who lose cases while working on contingency typically charge nothing or relatively small fees, such as only for expenses incurred.

Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing
An implied agreement that it's the duty of employers to treat employees honestly, fairly and ethically, especially dedicated, long-term employees. Examples of an employer's breach of this covenant include firing employees to avoid granting them earned rewards, fabricating reasons to fire or layoff employees, and coercing employees to quit. (See also Constructive Discharge.) However, fewer than half of the states recognize breach of this covenant as an exception to the Doctrine of Employment at Will. Compare to Implied Contract.

Cronyism
As it applies to jobs and other employment matters, it means favoring friends or associates ("cronies") with little to no consideration of their qualifications or the qualifications of other employees. Stems from the word crony, which means good buddy, longtime pal, close friend or trusted companion. This definition of cronyism is similar to that of nepotism.

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Decree
An order issued by a government or court. Such an order typically has legal force.

Doctrine
A legal principle or concept that is established through past decisions (e.g., court cases) and widely upheld. Compare to Common Law and Precedent.

Duress
When an otherwise-reasonable person does something against his or her will or good judgment, such as entering into an agreement, because he or she was compelled to do so by unlawful force, threat or pressure. Often a valid defense for breach of contract. Compare to Coerce.

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Equal Employment Opportunity
Often abbreviated as EEO, it means that job candidates and employees are to be treated equally in employment matters, regardless of age, creed, disability, national origin, race, color, religion, genetics, sex (gender) or military service. Equal employment opportunity is enforced by discrimination laws. In turn, discrimination laws are are sometimes referred to as equal employment opportunity laws or EEO laws for short.

Exempt
Generally means free of a liability or requirement. In reference to an employment or labor law, it means excluded from protection under the law (or excluded from the legal requirement to adhere to the law); for example, salaried exempt employees are generally excluded from overtime-pay protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), meaning that they are not eligible to receive overtime pay. Compare to nonexempt. Refer to the article Exempt vs. Non-Exempt for more information regarding employee status under the FLSA.

Exigency
Something that requires immediate action or remedy.

Expectation of Privacy
A legal concept under common law, that the courts use to "test" whether or not plaintiffs could have reasonably expected privacy protection under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or relevant laws. A subjective expectation of privacy is a personal opinion that varies from person to person; subsequently, it might not be valid. An objective or reasonable expectation of privacy is the collective opinion of society as a whole; subsequently, it is likely to be valid (particularly under public policy).

Explicit Contract
A contract that clearly states its meaning and intent in writing. Explicit employment contracts may expand the minimum provisions or make up for their absence in Federal and state, labor and employment laws. For example, an explicit employment contract may include a clause that entitles an employee to receive more than the required Federal or state minimum wage or overtime pay. Contracts are also called agreements. Compare to Collective Bargaining Agreement and Implied Contract.

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Faragher-Ellerth Defense
Also referred to as the Faragher-Ellerth affirmative defense, it's a defense strategy derived from two 1998 Supreme Court cases decided under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It means that an employer may avoid liability under Federal law, if the employer can prove that it had reasonably implemented sexual-harassment prevention and remedy measures and made employees aware of them, but the complaining employee (plaintiff) unreasonably failed to take advantage of the measures or to otherwise avoid harm before taking legal action. Some courts have since extended recognition of the Faragher-Ellerth defense to other types of harassment and hostile-work environment cases, such as those involving whistleblower or race discrimination. This employer defense generally doesn't hold water if the harassment culminated in an adverse employment action against the plaintiff, such as a retaliatory demotion or discharge. Also, simply making employees aware of anti-harassment policies might not be enough for employers to justify this defense.

Filibuster
An attempt to delay or prevent action in a legislative body, such as a vote on a bill.

Final Rule
A regulation issued by an administrative government agency, that amends one or more existing regulations (such as those in the Code of Federal Regulations). Before becoming a final rule, it might be available for public review and comment as a proposed rule; meanwhile, it might temporarily become an interim rule if there is a legally-justifiable reason to begin enforcing it right away. Compare to Code and Order.

First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion through the legal concept of separation of church and state. To avoid consequences, exercising these rights typically may not significantly interfere with your employment relationship or job performance. Also referred to as Amendment I. The first 10 Amendments to the Constitution are collectively referred to as the Bill of Rights.

Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Guarantees the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. In other words, it prohibits searches and seizures of a person or his or her belongings, without first showing probable cause (strong suspicion that a crime was committed) and obtaining an explicit warrant granting permission to conduct a search or seizure. Also referred to as Amendment IV. The first 10 Amendments to the Constitution are collectively referred to as the Bill of Rights.

Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Consists of five sections. In brief, it: grants U.S. citizenship to those who are eligible and guarantees equal protection to all U.S. citizens under the law; prohibits all states from passing and enforcing laws that deprive Americans of their rights and immunities granted by U.S. citizenship; prohibits all states from depriving U.S. citizens of life, liberty or property without due process of law (following legal rules and procedures); prohibits persons from holding government offices if they have engaged in insurrection or rebellion while holding government offices for which they swore to support the U.S. Constitution; prohibits questioning the validity of the public debt. See Amendment XIV for the full text.

Fraud
Intentionally twisting the truth or knowingly concealing facts. Employers might be guilty of fraud, for example, if they lie about the advantages or disadvantages of the jobs they're offering or as guise to illegally discharge employees. Fraud typically falls under tort or criminal law.

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- G -

Good Cause
A specific, legally-justifiable or legitimate business reason. Also referred to as just cause, reasonable cause or simply cause. Laying off employees to relieve financial distress and firing employees for gross misconduct or poor performance are examples of good cause for employers to discharge employees under the Doctrine of Employment at Will. Generally, compelling reasons or family obligations might be good cause for employees to quit their jobs without losing eligibility for state unemployment benefits.

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- I -

Implied Contract
Short for implied-in-fact contract, it's an agreement that is not explicitly in writing, but presumably intended by all parties involved. A manager's oral promise, a statement in an employee manual, a company policy, a chain of positive employee merit reviews, and a company's customary practices are each examples of what might constitute an implied contract between an employer and employee. (Often, what constitutes an implied contract infers a "promise" of continued or permanent employment.) Several states recognize breach of implied contract as an exception to the Doctrine of Employment at Will. However, employers might require new-hires to sign agreements, in which they acknowledge that documents, such as policy manuals, do not constitute contracts. Additionally, the laws in some states preclude employer policies from automatically constituting contracts. Subsequently, employee claims that implied contracts existed based on policies or documents might be invalid. Compare to Explicit Contract.

Injunction
A written court order (writ) requiring one or more individuals or organizations to engage in or cease engaging in the act specified.

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Judicial
Associated with a judgment, or the act of judging or administrating justice, such as in court. Also the name of a branch of government that administrates justice, such as the Federal Judicial Branch. Compare to Adjudicate.

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- K -

Klinghoffer Rule
A simple calculation of average weekly pay divided by hours worked. When the courts apply this rule, they do so to determine whether or not employees have received at least the minimum wage per hour on average. It gets its name from the 1980 case of United States v. Klinghoffer Bros. Realty Corp.

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- L -

Legalese
The specialized language spoken, written and understood among those who work in the legal profession, such as judges, government-office legal personnel and attorneys.

Legality
The quality or state of being legal or enforceable, observance of law, adherence to law, an obligation under law, or a matter directly related to law. Plural is legalities.

Legislate
To create legislation (such as laws, ordinances or regulations) as does a legislative branch of government, also referred to as a legislature.

Liable
Legally responsible to another or the general public and enforceable through civil or criminal legal action (e.g., private lawsuit or criminal court case). Liability is the state or degree of being liable.

Litigate
To dispute through a judicial process, such as a lawsuit in court or a hearing before an administrative law judge.

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- M -

Malicious
Intent to cause harm without justification and regard for legal rights.

Mediator
A presumably neutral third party who helps to resolve disputes between employers and employees, employers and unions or employees and unions during mediation. A mediator typically does not issue a final decision, but rather facilitates negotiations among the opposing parties. Agreements reached among the parties are typically not legally binding, but rather depend on honesty and integrity to uphold them. Compare to Arbitrator.

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- N -

Nepotism
Favoring relatives when making employment decisions, with little to no regard for anything but the relationships. Nepotism is not specifically outlawed under Federal employment discrimination laws, but still might constitute discrimination. See Nepotism in the Workplace for more information.

Nonexempt or Non-exempt
Generally means not free from a liability or requirement. In reference to an employment or labor law, it means not excluded from protection under the law (or not excluded from the legal requirement to adhere to the law); for example, hourly nonexempt employees are not excluded from overtime-pay and minimum-wage protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), meaning that they are eligible to receive overtime pay and at least the minimum wage. Compare to exempt. Refer to the article Exempt vs. Non-Exempt for more information regarding employee status under the FLSA.

Null and Void
Not legally binding or enforceable. For example, a court might declare an explicit contract null and void despite that all signing parties initially agreed to it, if any of its clauses weren't legally valid in the first place or it was signed under duress.

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- O -

Order
A written command or instruction issued by a judge, court or administrative government agency, that has legal force. Such an order issued by the President of the United States is referred to as an executive order or presidential executive order. Orders often amend or become regulations. Compare to Code and Final Rule.

Ordinance
A law, regulation or decree, especially at the municipal (town, city or county) level.

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Pay in Lieu of Notice
Also called in-lieu-of-notice pay, it means pay instead of notice. Employers might be required by employment or labor laws, explicit contracts, collective bargaining agreements, or their own policies or plans, to give advance notice of employment terminations such as layoffs. If employers fail to give such notice, they might be required to compensate affected employees in the form of back pay or pay in lieu of notice. For example, the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) is a Federal law that requires certain employers to give advanced notice of layoffs to affected employees. However, WARN does not recognize the concept of pay in lieu of notice, because it offers employers an alternative to giving the required notice. Still, an employer who issues adequate pay in lieu of notice will likely avoid the penalty under WARN for failing to give the required notice. It's a loophole to the advantage of employers.

Precedent
A benchmark decision by a court or government agency that provides the legal basis for deciding similar matters in the future. Compare to Common Law and Doctrine.

Private Sector
A part of society, industry or the economy that is not under direct governmental control. For example, private-sector employers are businesses that are privately owned by individuals, partners or stock holders, while private-sector employees work for such businesses. Compare to Public Sector.

Proceeding
Legal action, such as a court trial by jury or a hearing by a government agency.

Public Policy
Generally refers to principles, values and standards that the courts and legislatures consider to be in the best interest of an individual, and the general public as well. May be expressed or implied and varies among jurisdictions. As for how it relates to employment, most at-will states recognize violation of public policy as an exception to the Doctrine of Employment at Will in wrongful termination cases. Firing an employee because the employee refused to break a law, because the employee reported an employer's illegal act to the proper authority, or because the employee legitimately filed a claim for workers' compensation are each an example of what might constitute a public-policy violation related to employment. Alleged violations of public policy typically must go through the courts for resolution.

Public Sector
A part of society, industry or the economy that is under direct Federal, state or local governmental control. For example, public-sector employers are government agencies and other organizations that represent the general public under governmental control, while public-sector employees work for such organizations. Compare to Private Sector.

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- Q -

Qui Tam
Short for qui tam action, it means that U.S. citizens may take legal action on behalf of their government, such as filing lawsuits. For example, a whistleblower who works for a company that provides services to the Federal Government under contract, may sue the company in court under the False Claims Act for defrauding the Federal Government. Better yet, the whistleblower will receive a fair share of the monetary damages awarded to the Federal Government, while being protected from employer retaliation. Some states have passed False Claims Act equivalents, to deter and punish for fraud against state governments. Consult a lawyer about filing a qui tam lawsuit.

Quid Pro Quo
Latin legalese meaning "something for something" or in other words, something given or received in exchange for something else. Its meaning is similar to that of the saying, "Scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." For example, when an office manager has unlawfully propositioned a subordinate for sexual favors in return for a work-related benefit, such as continued employment, the U.S. legal community refers to it as quid pro quo sexual harassment.

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- R -

Regulation
A rule or order that has legal force, issued by an administrative government agency. Governments issue regulations as the means to enforce specific laws. Compare to Code and Final Rule.

Resignation in Lieu of Discharge
Having resigned from a job by mutual agreement with an employer, instead of getting fired; forced to quit a job under the threat of employment termination. Employees who chose resignation in lieu of discharge when given the choice, typically do so to avoid the stigma of having been fired for an undesirable reason such as misconduct or poor job performance. Also referred to as resignation in lieu of termination.

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Statute
A law enacted by a legislative branch of government, typically through a formal act. Overtime law enacted through the Fair Labor Standards Act is an example. Compare to Code.

Statute of Limitations
A municipal, state or Federal law that imposes a time limit for suing in court, filing a charge with a government agency or taking other legal action after an alleged wrongdoing occurred. Among the intentions is to help ensure defendants' rights to speedy trials and other proceedings, while preserving the "freshness" of evidence. Time limits vary depending under which law one takes legal action. For example, an employee typically has 180 days to file a charge of employment discrimination with the EEOC under a Federal discrimination law, 300 days if the charge also falls under a state or local discrimination law.

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Tort Law
A branch of law that deals with civil wrongdoings ("torts") for which harmed persons may obtain relief, such as collecting monetary damages through lawsuits. Also referred to as personal injury law or injury and tort law.

Tortious Interference
Intentionally damaging a contractual relationship or interfering with a contract right under tort law, such as an employer persuading or knowingly permitting a new-hire to breach his or her non-compete agreement with a former employer.

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Waive
To voluntarily relinquish (give up) or refrain from enforcing, such as a legal right.

Writ of Mandate or Writ of Mandamus
An order issued by a court to another court or a government agency, demanding that the recipient correct its previous action or cease its unlawful act by adhering to the law. Writ means a formal written document and mandamus is Latin for "we command."

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