California is an at-will employment state, which means that employers can fire an employee for almost any reason if there is no employment contract stating otherwise. However, employers are not totally free to fire an employee for any reason. In some situations, other laws give employees rights that an employer can violate. Below, we highlight 5 of the top situations where you might have been wrongfully terminated.
Most employment contracts state that an employer will not fire an employee without good cause. Good cause is fairly elastic, but it can be anything from doing a poor job to being tardy on a regular basis. If both the employer and the employee sign the contract, then an employer must have good cause to terminate employment.
However, contracts sometimes exist even when nothing was signed. There are so-called “implied contracts” that can be created by the employer’s handbook or manual, for example. If a manual states that an employee will be fired only for good cause, then this language could create a legal obligation on the employer. Other implied contracts can be created by statements the employer has made or language in an engagement letter.
Violation of Public Policy
California has created some exceptions to the at-will doctrine to advance important social policies. For example, an employer cannot fire an employee for refusing to break the law. If an employer wants a subordinate to release toxic chemicals into the waterways and she refuses, then she can’t be legally fired for this refusal.
Discrimination or Harassment
Both federal law and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibit discrimination and workplace harassment based on certain protected characteristics, such as race, gender, age, religion, disability, etc. If an employer basis termination on one of these protected characteristics, then the termination was wrongful.
An employee cannot be fired for filing a complaint about harassment or discrimination or for opposing either. That is a type of retaliation that is disallowed.
Employees often fear retaliation when they see an employer break the law, so many keep silent. To encourage disclosure, California has adopted many laws that protect whistleblowers, such as:
- Labor Code § 1102.5. This law prevents employers from retaliating if the employee reports suspected violations of the law which includes harassment and discrimination. The law also protects testimony before public bodies that are conducting investigations.
- Labor Code § 98.6, which covers retaliation against job applicants and family members of people who filed complaints for labor violations.
- Government Code § 12653, which protects employees from retaliation for reporting suspected fraudulent claims for money to state or local government.
- Labor Code § 6310, which prohibits retaliation against those who report violations of worker safety rules set by the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA).
Remember, it does not matter whether the employer actually committed the violation, so long as the person reporting the violation had a reasonable basis for believing so. The report does not need to be made to law enforcement or other government bodies. A report or protest to a supervisor or someone else that has the authority to correct the illegal actions of the employer is sufficient to trigger the protections.
Generally, under California law, an employee cannot bring a wrongful termination suit if they quit a job. However, employers sometimes make the workplace so intolerable that an employee will have no choice but to quit. This is “constructive discharge.”
An employee has been constructively discharged if their employer, without legal reasons, knowingly creates or allows a workplace to become so intolerable that a reasonable employee would quit. Typically, employers are trying to retaliate against an employee or are motivated by discriminatory reasons.
Contact a California Employee Rights Attorney Today
Wagner Zemming Christensen LLP has brought many wrongful termination lawsuits on behalf of employees. To check whether you have a valid claim, please contact our law firm for a free consultation. One of our lawyers will review all relevant facts and decide the best avenue for receiving compensation. Please contact us today as soon as possible.