Most employees in California that do not have an employment contract are considered to be “at-will” employees, meaning that either party may terminate the employment for any reason or no reason at all. However, there are limits on when an employer may terminate the employment relationship. If the employer ends the employment relationship for a reason that is illegal, it is considered to be a wrongful termination that allows the employee to sue for damages.
Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), employers may not terminate or discriminate against an employee based upon many characteristics including:
• Age, if the employee is over 40
• Religious affiliation
• Marital status
• Sexual orientation
Employees that are terminated or suffer discrimination, harassment or retaliation for any of the factors enumerated in the FEHA potentially have a claim for wrongful termination. Additionally, wrongful termination can occur when employees exercise a right granted by law (e.g. maternity leave) and are terminated or suffer other adverse employment actions subsequently.
What damages are available?
If you suffer a wrongful termination, you can file a civil lawsuit against your former employer to seek compensation for the losses that you suffered. However, you must first prove to the court that the losses occurred before you may recover compensation. As a result, it is important for you to be aware of the types of damages available in a wrongful termination lawsuit and how they are calculated.
In a wrongful termination lawsuit, you are entitled to collect any pay that you would have received had you not been terminated, as well as any owed wages, overtime or other compensation. As a result, you may recover the wages that you would have been paid for as long as you are unemployed. However, if you eventually find a new job that pays just as much or more than your old job, you may not recover lost wages (except for the period of time that you were unemployed). On the other hand, if you accept a lower paying job, the amount of damages you may recover will simply be reduced by the wages that you are earning in your new position.
In California, if you suffer emotional distress as a result of your employer’s illegal actions, you may recover damages for this. Emotional distress can take many forms, including depression, anxiety and other physical or emotional symptoms. Unlike lost wages, there is no easily quantifiable way to determine emotional damages, as it is typically up to the discretion of the jury to determine the amount based on the facts of your case.
If your employer’s illegal actions were particularly egregious or willful, you may be entitled to punitive damages. These damages are not based on any actual loss that you suffered, but are intended to punish your employer and deter other employers from engaging in the same conduct. Like emotional distress damages, punitive damages are determined by the court. As a result, it is impossible to determine in advance the amount of punitive damages that you may recover.
Consult an attorney
If you suspect that you have been terminated for an illegal reason, it is important to first consult with an experienced wrongful termination attorney. An attorney can listen to the facts surrounding your termination, advise you on the damages you may recover, and work to obtain the maximum amount of compensation that you are entitled to.