Certain state and federal laws are in place that govern under what circumstances an employer may let an employee go. Employers are not allowed to fire a worker for a discriminatory reason, such as the worker’s race, color, sex, age, national origin or disability. Employees may also not be fired in retaliation for asserting their legal rights. Should an employer violate one of these laws, it could find itself facing legal action by the fired employee.
At-will Employment in California
California is an at-will employment state, as are most other states in the country. Under the at-will employment doctrine, the employer and employee relationship is voluntary and can be terminated by either party, at any time. There does not need to be cause for the termination and no notice is required. However, this does not give an employer the right to fire an employee in every circumstance. Therefore, employers should be aware of the exceptions that exist to the at-will employment doctrine.
Wrongful Termination in California
At-will employment does not give an employer the carte blanche ability to fire an employee in every situation. Employees are protected under state and federal law from being fired for discriminatory reasons, as well as being fired in retaliation for asserting their rights. Employers are also required to adhere to the terms of an employment contract or union agreement. Employers that violate any of these employment laws may be found liable for the fired employee’s lost wages, benefits and legal fees.
Breach of Contract: In some situations, employers and employees may enter into an employment contract or agreement that outlines the terms of the employee’s position. Such contracts usually define the specific reasons for or manner in which the employee may be terminated. Once an employment contract is entered into, the employer is bound to honor the terms of the agreement. The law also allows for implied contracts, as in the case of employee handbooks. If a company has an employee handbook that sets forth the company’s policy for when and how employees may be terminated, the company may be sued for breach of contract should they violate that policy.
Discrimination: Federal employment law protects employees from being fired based on certain protected characteristics. These include race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including pregnancy, childbirth and related conditions), disability, age, citizenship and genetic information. California law also bars employers from discriminating based on marital status, sexual orientation and identity, AIDS/HIV status, medical conditions, political affiliation, military status and a person’s status as a domestic violence victim. While the federal law covers employers with at least 15 employees for most forms of discrimination, California law holds all employers with five or more employees subject to antidiscrimination law.
Retaliation: In California, it is also illegal for employers to retaliate against an employee for engaging in a protected activity. Examples of protected activities include filing a discrimination claim, reporting a suspected violation of state or federal law and refusing to participate in an illegal activity. Employees are also protected from being terminated for participating in an investigation into a company’s activities.
Public Policy: In California, there is also an exception to the at-will employment doctrine for matters of public policy. Employees are prohibited from being fired if it would go against a clearly established law that benefits the common good. This can include performing a public duty, exercising a legal right or refusing to take part in an illegal or unethical activity. By way of example, pregnant employees in California are eligible to take four months of pregnancy disability leave. An employer, therefore, cannot fire an employee for taking this disability leave since the law was passed with the public’s interest in mind and expressly allows the employee to do so.
The content on our website is only meant to provide general information and is not legal advice. We make our best efforts to make sure the information is accurate, but we cannot guarantee it. Do not rely on the content as legal advice. For assistance with legal problems or for a legal inquiry please contact you attorney.