At-Will Employment & the Definition of Wrongful Termination
Many people have heard of “wrongful termination,” but not everyone understands exactly what this means. California is an “at-will” state, meaning employers can generally fire, let go, or terminate employees at any time and for nearly any reason—so long as it does not violate state or federal law. In other words, you cannot claim wrongful termination if you believe your employer fired you because he didn’t like you or because she thought your work performance was poor.
However, while it may seem that California employers have broad discretion when it comes to firing their employees, workers are protected in a number of circumstances.
Generally speaking, an employer cannot fire you if:
- Doing so violates the terms of your employment contract
- It is based on discrimination (sex, age, race, religion, etc.)
- He or she is retaliating against you for exercising your rights
- Doing so goes against public policy
If you are fired or let go for one of the above reasons, you do have grounds for a wrongful termination claim and should speak to an employment law attorney as soon as possible about your rights and legal options.
Employment Contract Violations
If you enter into an employment contract—typically written, though a verbal or implied contract may apply—with your employer, it will likely outline circumstances under which you can and cannot be let go. Generally speaking, employment contracts designate the amount of time for which an employee is guaranteed work, as well as stipulations that the employee can only be let go with “good cause,” or specific reasons.
For example, say you are hired on as an executive at a large company. Upon being hired, you sign an employment contract outlining your role, your benefits, and your salary. The contract also states that your employment is valid for a period of two years, contingent on work performance. If your employer terminates your employment after six months and fails to provide a valid reason for doing so, you may be able to bring a wrongful termination claim.
Similarly, if you are hired at a company and the company’s employee handbook stipulates that no employee can be let go without “good cause,” you have an implied contract. Therefore, if you are fired without “good cause,” you may be able to bring a wrongful termination claim.
Discrimination & Wrongful Termination
California workers are protected from discrimination by both state and federal law. As such, no employer can fire an employee based on a protected class. For example, if your employer fires you after finding out that you are Muslim, you may be able to argue that you were wrongfully terminated based on discrimination.
Under both federal and state law, protected classes in California include:
- National origin
- Familial status (pregnancy, childbirth, etc.)
- Age (40 and older)
- Disability (physical or mental)
- Genetic information
- Citizenship status
- Marital status
- Sexual orientation
- Gender identity/expression
- Medical condition
- AIDS/HIV status
- Political affiliations, memberships, or activities
- Military/veteran status
- Domestic violence/assault/stalking victim status
In California, anti-discrimination laws only apply to employers who employ at least five people (with some exceptions). So, while an employee at a major retail chain may be able to file a complaint for wrongful termination based on discrimination, a nanny who works directly with a family (rather than through an agency) will likely not be able to do so.
Retaliation & Violation of Public Policy
Lastly, California workers are protected from retaliation and violation of public policy.
While these two often go hand-in-hand, there are a few key differences:
- Retaliation occurs when an employer punishes (for our purposes here, fires) an employee for attempting to or actually exercising his or her employee rights as protected under state or federal law. For example, your employer cannot fire you for filing a discrimination or sexual harassment claim or for filing a claim for workers’ compensation. An employer also cannot fire you for taking medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or for being a whistleblower (reporting your employer’s illegal actions).
- Violation of public policy occurs when an employer terminates your employment in retaliation for you exercising a right that is not specifically covered by employment laws or statutes but is a right, nonetheless. For example, if you refuse to take part in an employer’s unlawful practices, such as wrongfully reporting tax information to the IRS, your employer cannot legally fire you. Similarly, your employer cannot fire you for participating in civil activities, such as taking part in an organized protest, outside of work hours.
Compensation in Wrongful Termination Claims
So, what is the purpose of filing a wrongful termination claim? For many, the answer is simple: justice. You want to hold a past employer accountable for his or her unjust and illegal actions. Furthermore, being unexpectedly let go may have placed you under serious financial duress. A wrongful termination claim can allow you the opportunity to seek lost wages and benefits, as well as damages for emotional/mental distress, attorneys’ fees, and court costs. In rare instances, you may be able to seek punitive damages, which are meant to punish the at-fault party for egregious wrongful behavior.
In any case, it is in your best interests to speak to a knowledgeable and experienced employment law attorney. At K2 Employment Law Group, our Northridge wrongful termination lawyers can help you go over the facts of your situation to determine whether or not you have grounds for a claim. If we determine that you were, in fact, wrongfully terminated, we can help you prepare your case and seek justice and retribution from the at-fault party.
We offer free, confidential consultations. Contact us today to request yours.