People get fired all the time. In most circumstances, corporations are allowed to fire their employees without legal repercussions. This is the “at-will” doctrine. However, there are limits to this rule. California employment law has made clear that employees cannot be terminated for several reasons. If they are fired for one of these special reasons, the employee can bring an action for wrongful termination.
Wrongful Termination Law in California
What does it mean to be “wrongfully terminated” in California? It means that the employer fired the employee for an illegal reason (such as for a discriminatory, harassing, or retaliatory reason) or in breach of an employment contract. More specifically, employers cannot fire employees for any reason that violates California’s “public policy.” If an employer does this, the termination overwhelms the at-will doctrine and the termination becomes “wrongful.”
This obviously begs the question for non-lawyers, what does “public policy” mean? Public policy is defined throughout California’s case law and statutory scheme. Below is a list of commonly violated public policies:
- Gender, Pregnancy
- Pregnancy discrimination, sexual harassment, and other forms of gender discrimination are clear violations of public policy.
- Discrimination on the basis of religion is a clear violation of public policy.
- Race, color, national origin, or ethnic origin
- Terminating an employee because he is black, brown, asian, or some other qualifying characteristic is against public policy.
- Terminating an employee because he or she has a physical or mental disability, or because the person has a medical condition may violate public policy.
- Family or medical leave discrimination
- Terminating an employee because he or she took family or medical leave violates public policy.
- Equal pay
- Firing a female or gay worker because he or she asserted a right to equal pay violates public policy.
- Discussing wages with coworkers
- Firing an employee for discussing his or her wages with coworkers violates public policy and may be the basis of wrongful termination.
- Political activity
- Discharging an employee because of his political activity, particularly political speech, is a violation of fundamental public policy.
- Unsafe workplace
- Firing an employee for protesting unsafe working conditions violates public policy.
- Terminating employees for disclosing an employer’s violation of state or federal regulations to a governmental agency violates public policy and may be the basis of a wrongful termination lawsuit.
- Firing an employee for reporting statutory violations by employer also violates public policy.
- Refusing to sign a non-compete agreement
- Firing a worker for refusing to sign a non-compete agreement violates public policy.
- Prompt payment of earned wages
- Failing to pay wages promptly is a violation of fundamental public policy.
- Refusing to release employer from liability for intentional acts
- Requiring employees to sign a document releasing the employer from liability for intentional acts violates public policy.
- Testifying at a hearing
- Discharge based on an employee’s taking time off (after reasonable notice to the employer) to appear in court as a witness violates public policy.
When being fired for one of the above public policies, employers usually don’t admit to it. They usually fire the employee for a fake reason, like “poor performance” or “tardiness.” This fake reason is called a pretext. To learn more about how a pretext plays out in employment lawsuits, visit our pretext termination page.
But what if you are an “at-will” employee? Most employees in California are at-will. Employers often believe that they can fire an at-will employee at any time for any reason. This is false. In California, a company can fire an employee for any reason except for a reason that violates public policy. This public policy position in California overrides the at-will employment doctrine.
This public policy doctrine established CA’s wrongful termination law in the CA Supreme Court case Tameny v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (1980) 27 C3d 167. This case destroys the presumption that the at will doctrine creates (CA Labor Code § 2922). Without Tameny v. Atlantic, California would not have a strong wrongful discharge employment law.
There are many more “public policies” than are listed above that fall under the broad umbrella of “wrongful termination.” To find out if you have a case you should contact an employment lawyer. The attorney should ask you why you were fired to investigate whether or not California’s employment laws were violated.
Basics of Termination Cases
People get fired everyday across California. What makes a termination a “wrongful termination?” As discussed above it means that the employer fired someone for a reason that violates California’s public policy. It doesn’t mean that the termination was unfair. “Public policy” means that the discharge violated policies contained in CA case law, regulations, or the constitution.
Here is a quick example. It’s unlawful for an employer to terminate a worker because of his or her race, gender, pregnancy, age, disability, religion, or taking of a medical leave. It is also considered a wrongful discharge if the boss fired the employee for requesting an accommodation for a disability (so long as it was reasonable), or because the employee blew the whistle by complaining about unlawful or fraudulent conduct. It may also be a legal violation if an employer fires an employee for associating with victims of discrimination (such as attending a gay pride parade) or opposing harassment or discrimination.
According to California’s main anti-discrimination law, it is unlawful for an employer to harass or discharge an employee because that employee engaged in a protected activity. These “protected activities” include complaining about or opposing harassment or discrimination founded in race, sexual orientation, disability, national origin, age, sex, or religion.
An employer may not terminate an employee who complains about discrimination or harassment if the employee had a reasonable belief that the behavior he or she was complaining about was against the law. Without hiring a wrongful dismissal attorney it is almost impossible to hold an employer accountable for the unlawful firing.
Here are some recent wrongful termination verdicts and settlements in California.
Branigan Robertson is a wrongful termination lawyer and explains the basics of CA’s wrongful discharge law below.
Public Employers Can’t be Sued for Wrongful Termination
Please note that you cannot sue a public employer for wrongful termination. However, if you were fired from a public employer, and feel your termination was somehow unlawful, contact an employment lawyer because it may fall under other employment laws worth pursuing. Many employment laws overlap.
Employment Lawyer Consultation
There are many more reasons that qualify as wrongful dismissal. If you would like to know whether your boss has wrongfully fired you, contact our wrongful termination attorney for a free consultation. Mr. Robertson’s labor law office serves clients all throughout southern California.
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