What constitutes wrongful termination in California?

When employers fire employees in violation of a statute or public policy, it constitutes wrongful termination.

Many employees are under the impression that their continued employment is at the sole discretion of their employers, and that they have no protections from being fired. However, in some instances it is illegal for employers to terminate employees. It is important for California workers to understand when it is illegal for an employer to fire an employee and the steps they can take to protect themselves from wrongful termination.

At-will employment

In general, when there is an employer-employee relationship that is of an indefinite duration, the employment is considered "at-will." This means that either party can terminate the relationship for any reason that is not illegal or no reason at all. An employment relationship that begins as at-will can be transformed by the employer into an employment situation where the employer may only fire the employee for cause, either through written material or oral statements.

For example, an employer may distribute an employment handbook that outlines a specific process that an employer will follow when terminating an employee, giving the impression to employees that the employer will not fire an employee before following all of the steps listed in the process. The court could view the handbook as an employment contract.

Wrongful termination

There are some exceptions to the general at-will employment rule. When an employer fires an employee in violation of a statute or public policy, it is considered wrongful termination. California's Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibits employers from discriminating in employment decisions, including termination, on the basis of a number of factors, including but not limited to:

  • Age, for those over 40 years old
  • Race
  • Marital status
  • Gender
  • Religious creed
  • Ancestry
  • National origin
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disability
  • Medical conditions
  • Pregnancy

If an employer were to fire an employee because of one of the characteristics listed in the FEHA, it would be wrongful termination. It is also wrongful termination for an employer to fire an employee for exercising a legal right, such as seeking time off from work under the Family and Medical Leave Act or filing a claim for sexual harassment. When an employer fires an employee for refusing to break the law or for acting as a whistleblower, it is wrongful termination. Finally, if an employment contract exists and an employer fires an employee without just cause, it is wrongful termination.

Filing suit for wrongful termination

In order to prevail on a claim for wrongful termination, an employee must prove that the employer fired the employee in violation of the FEHA or another statute, or that the termination violated public policy. Alternately, the employee must show that there was an actual or implied employment contract and the employer did not have "just cause" to fire the employee.

Wrongful termination suits are often very fact-specific, and it is important to have a skilled wrongful termination attorney review the facts of the case in order to determine the issues involved. If you have questions about wrongful termination, talk to an experienced San Francisco wrongful termination lawyer who can help you assert your rights in the workplace.

Keywords: wrongful termination; whistleblower; employment law