California is an at-will employment state, which means you can terminate your employees for any reason or no reason at all. However, as an employer who does not want any trouble with the law, it makes sense to wonder, “Can at-will employees be wrongfully terminated?”
The short answer is, “Yes, under certain circumstances, firing an at-will employee could trigger a wrongful termination lawsuit.” If you are considering firing an employee in California, consult with our Riverside wrongful termination attorneys at Wagner Zemming Christensen, LLP, to learn your legal rights.
What is at-will employment?
Under California Labor Code § 2922, employment in the state of California is presumed to be “at-will” unless an exception to the rule applies or otherwise agreed between the parties.
At-will employment means that employers can fire at-will employees for any reason, at any time, and without any reason at all. Generally, at-will employees cannot file a wrongful termination lawsuit against their employer because of the at-will employment rule.
However, there are exceptions to the general rule. Under certain circumstances, it is possible to wrongfully terminate an at-will employee in California.
Can at-will employees be wrongfully terminated?
While California’s at-will employment law states that employers can fire workers for any reason or no reason at all if they were employed on an at-will basis, it is still against the law to terminate an employee for an illegal reason.
While it’s more difficult for at-will employees to file a wrongful termination suit, it does not mean that they cannot sue their employers for wrongfully terminating their employment.
California Labor Code prohibits employers from firing their employees for an illegal reason, such as retaliation or discrimination. The law applies to all workers, including at-will employees.
When can at-will employees sue their employer for wrongful termination?
While employers in California do not need any reasons to terminate an employee, the state’s employment law prohibits firing workers for an illegal reason.
If an at-will employee can prove that their employment was terminated for one of the illegal reasons under California Labor Code § 98.6 or other statutes, they may be able to pursue a wrongful termination lawsuit and recover damages from the employer. Illegal reasons to fire at-will employees in California include:
- Discrimination. If an employer fires an employee for a discriminatory reason, they can be sued for wrongful termination, even if the worker was hired on an at-will basis. Under Government Code § 12940, it is illegal to discriminate against employees based on religion, sex, gender, physical or mental disability, age, race, color, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, ancestry, genetic information, medical condition, or veteran/military status.
- Retaliation. Employers are prohibited from firing employees out of retaliation, even at-will employees. Under California labor law, it is illegal to retaliate against workers who complain or participate in investigations of harassment and discrimination, report violations of law in the workplace, request reasonable accommodations, and file “qui tam” lawsuits.
- Breach of contract. At-will employees cannot be terminated if the termination constitutes a breach of an employment contract. For example, if an employment agreement promises employment for a year, firing an at-will employee before the end of the contract could constitute wrongful termination.
If you want to fire an at-will employee but are worried about a possible wrongful termination lawsuit, you should consult with a knowledgeable attorney to review your unique case. Schedule a consultation with our Riverside wrongful termination lawyers at Wagner Zemming Christensen, LLP, to determine whether firing an at-will employee would be illegal in your particular situation. Call 951-686-4800 to receive a consultation.