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What Are Some Exceptions to “At-Will” Employment in California?

At-will Employment

California is considered an “at-will” state for employment. That means that a worker, by default, is considered to be employed “at-will.” When an employee is employed “at-will,” it means that the worker may leave employment at any time for any reason. Similarly, an employer may terminate an at-will employee for any lawful reason.

As simple as this might sound in theory, in practice, at-will employment is more complicated. Over time, the laws governing at-will employment in California have developed various exceptions to the basic rule of at-will employment that either the employee or employer may terminate the employment relationship at any time. When one of these exceptions occurs, an employee may be entitled to bring a claim of wrongful termination against their employer, despite being employed at will.

Exceptions to “At-Will” Employment

Various exceptions to the basic doctrine of at-will employment in California include:

Public policy

Termination of at-will employment under circumstances that violates important public policy can give rise to a wrongful termination claim. The underlying public policy must be established by statutory or case law, constitutional law, government regulation, or mandatory ethics rules. The employee must also show the existence of a clear connection between the public policy and their termination. Examples of public policy violations giving rise to wrongful termination claims include:

  • Termination based on discrimination of a protected characteristic, such as race, national origin, religious belief, sex, sexual orientation, age, or disability
  • Termination arising from sexual harassment (i.e., an employee is terminated for refusing an employer’s or supervisor’s sexual demands)
  • Termination after an employee exercises their rights under employment laws, such as the ADA, FMLA, or Workers’ Compensation Act
  • Termination in retaliation for an employee’s whistleblowing activity

Express written contract

Employment is not considered to be “at-will” if the employer and employee have an express written contract that either guarantees a term of employment to the employee or sets forth the conditions under which the employer may be entitled to terminate the employee, usually referred to as a “termination for cause.”

Implied contract of continued employment

An employment contract may also be implied between the employee and employer, based on oral promises and/or on the actions and performance of the parties. However, no implied contract can exist if an employee has a written employment contract that specifically designated their employment to be at-will.

Implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing

Under California law, employers are subject to an implied promise to all their workers to not make adverse employment decisions in an arbitrary or malicious manner. A breach of this implied covenant may occur if an employer terminates a worker in violation of the company’s own policies, terminates a worker to avoid having to pay benefits the worker would have earned if they remained employed, or lies or misrepresents the reasons for the worker’s termination. 


Fraud/misrepresentation can support a claim of wrongful termination when an employer provides knowingly false information or conceals or fails to disclose material information, which induces an employee to rely on that misrepresentations to take a particular action (usually accepting an offer of employment), and the employee suffers losses as a result.

An example of fraud/misrepresentation supporting a claim for wrongful termination may involve an employer representing to a prospective employee that the employer’s business is successful, and the employee can stay with the company so long as they perform well.

The employee then leaves their current stable position of employment to go work for the new employer. However, the employer knew that the company’s future prospects were poor when it hired the employee, and as money becomes an issue, the employer terminates the employee’s position.

Let a Skilled Employment Lawyer Help You Today

If you have questions about your legal rights under our state’s at-will employment laws, call the California wrongful termination lawyers of Wagner Zemming Christensen, LLP, at 951-686-4800 or contact us today for a confidential consultation to speak with one of our experienced employment lawyers.

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