Most employment relationships in California are “at will,” meaning that your employer can let you go for any reason and without warning. It also means you can leave at any time for any reason. However, some employees have contractual rights as spelled out in an employment contract.
These contracts typically identify the reasons you can be terminated and generally guarantee employment for the length of the contract term.
However, even at-will employees have rights in California, such as the right not to be discriminated against or retaliated against for reporting violations. These rights apply by law, not contract, and they protect all workers in California.
If you feel that you have been wrongfully terminated, then you should move quickly to identify whether you have a valid legal claim for retaliation.
Violations of Contractual Rights
The clearest cases of wrongful termination involve an employer terminating an employee in violation of an employment contract. In these situations, if the employment contract limits the employer’s right to terminate (for example, requiring “good cause” for termination), the employer may have wrongfully terminated the employee if it exceeds those contractual limits.
If you have been terminated, look at your employment contract and identify the situations where your employer can terminate your contract. Some contracts will state that you can be laid off for “good cause” or for another reason. The contract might then provide more detail about what qualifies as good cause, or it might not.
Key in wrongful termination disputes involving contracts is whether each side fulfilled its duties per the agreement. For example, you might have agreed to provide certain services or to meet certain benchmarks as an employee.
If you did not, then your employer might claim it was justified under the contract to fire you. Since so much rides on what the contract says, you should meet with an attorney as soon as possible to discuss whether you have a valid wrongful termination claim.
Federal and state laws protect people from discrimination based on certain protected characteristics. Under federal law, you cannot be laid off because of your:
- Sex, including pregnancy
- Age (over 40 years old)
- National origin
- Genetic information
California’s antidiscrimination law is even broader than the federal law. In addition to the characteristics protect above, the state also protects against discrimination on the basis of:
- Sexual orientation
- Gender identity
- Marital status
- AIDS/HIV status
- Political beliefs
- Military or veteran status
Furthermore, an employer cannot discriminate by laying off people using a facially neutral reason that nevertheless has a disparate impact on certain groups. For example, an employer might suddenly announce that all employees must be able to lift 100 pounds, which is a way to lay off large numbers of female workers. The reason given must be job-related and necessary for the business.
Wrongful termination also applies in some situations when you are forced to quit a job. The exception is quite narrow, but it covers those workplaces where it is intolerable to remain at your job so the only option an employee has is to quit. Although you might be the one to say, “I’m quitting,” the reasons you are leaving are wholly attributable to your employer allowing the workplace to become abusive.
It is not easy to identify when a workplace is so hostile that you have a constructive discharge claim. Simply being unhappy at work or not getting your vacation when you want it does not rise to the level of hostility necessary to quit and claim constructive discharge. Instead, a court will look for:
- Whether the work conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable employee would resign.
- Whether the employer created the intolerable work conditions or knew about them and allowed them to continue.
- Whether your employer was motivated to get rid of you for discriminatory, retaliatory, or illegal reasons.
Also, if the constructive discharge (i.e., when the employee is “forced to quit”), occurs too long after the hostile conduct occurred, it will look like the working conditions were not so intolerable that the employee needed to leave.
Federal and state laws also protect employees who suffer retaliation for blowing the whistle on their employer’s illegal conduct. For example, you might report that someone is sexually harassing you, only to be fired. Or you might report that a boss is sexually harassing one of your coworkers, and you are fired in retaliation.
There are many federal and state laws that prohibit retaliation, including:
- Federal and state anti-discrimination law protect you if you report discrimination or harassment.
- Workers’ compensation law protects you from retaliation for making a claim for workers’ compensation benefits after a job site injury.
- State and federal laws protect you if you complain about workplace safety and health violations.
In retaliation cases, an employer will often make up a reason you were laid off as a pretext. For example, the employer might claim your performance suffered when retaliation was the real motivation.
Wrongful Termination for Other Reasons
Your employer also can’t fire you for exercising a legal right or refusing to break the law. For example, an employer might want you to route the waste from your manufacturing plant into the river or ocean. In this situation, your employer wants you to break the law by polluting. If you refuse, your employer cannot retaliate against you for refusing to violate the law.
Documenting the Wrongful Discharge
To protect your legal rights, you need proof that the employer discharged you for illegal reasons. The evidence you collect will depend on the circumstances surrounding your termination. For example, if your employer fired you because you were pregnant, then you will need proof that tends to show your pregnancy was the reason. Unfortunately, few bosses will come right out and say it, so you must look for circumstantial evidence.
To begin building your wrongful termination case, collect the following to show to your attorney:
- Communications between you and your employer. Print off emails, keep written notes and preserve phone messages. It might be difficult to gain access to this material after being fired. Nevertheless, collect what you can.
- The names and contact information of anyone who witnessed any behavior in question. For example, an employee might have heard a boss make a sexist or racist remark.
- Information about other people who have been laid off at the same time as you. For example, you might think your employer laid you off because of your race or ethnicity. Note the races or ethnicities of everyone else who was laid off at or near the same time.
- Copies of work performance evaluations, commendations, awards, etc. These can give a sense of what kind of employee you were.
- A copy of your employee handbook or manual. These can create certain legal obligations on behalf of your employer.
Later, your attorney might be able to collect other information, such as emails or messages management sent to each other. You might also be able to ask your employer questions under oath.
Filing an Administrative Complaint
Depending on the type of discharge, you might need to file a complaint with an administrative agency before you can actually bring a lawsuit against your employer. In particular, if you believe you were discriminated against, you will need to file a complaint with either the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).
Most employees can file with either, but if your employer is small (under 15 employees) you can only file with your state agency.
If you file with one agency, then it will share your complaint (called a “charge”) with the other agency if you indicate you want them to do so. To file a complaint, you should visit the agency websites to learn more information. You should not delay. These agencies have strict deadlines.
For example, you must report discrimination to the state agency within one year of when the discrimination took place and to the EEOC within 180 days. You do not want to miss these deadlines.
Considering a Lawsuit
By filing a lawsuit, you can receive compensation for your losses associated with your wrongful termination. Lawsuits are complicated, and you would benefit greatly from having an attorney bring the case for you. When meeting with your lawyer, you can discuss what kinds of compensation might be available, such as lost wages or reinstatement into your job. Depending on why you were terminated, you might also receive money for emotional distress.
Mediation or Settlement
Sometimes, you can settle your dispute with your employer without ever going to court. A settlement has many advantages, including the fact that it is often cheaper and much faster than a trial. Also, settlement eliminates the risk that you might not win your lawsuit and end up with nothing.
Mediation is a form of guided negotiation. You and your employer meet with a mediator, who helps each side listen. The mediator can also help each side slowly work toward a compromise they both can accept. Negotiation and mediation are both voluntary, so you can walk away if you are unhappy with what your employer is offering you in return. Nevertheless, many employees expressed satisfaction with the process.
Speak with a California Wrongful Termination Attorney
Employees who have been unjustly fired often struggle to assert their rights. Many employers have high-priced law firms looking out for their interests and are willing to use every advantage to get your complaint dismissed.
At the Workplace Rights Law Group, we help level the playing field. With a dedicated employment attorney in your corner, you can successfully protect your rights and get the compensation that you deserve. To schedule a consultation please call 818-844-5200.