Grounds for Wrongful Termination Lawsuits in California
In California, both at-will and contract-based employees can sue for wrongful termination under appropriate circumstances. The grounds for seeking damages for wrongful termination in California generally include the following:
1. Discriminatory Unlawful Termination
State and federal laws prohibit California employers from terminating employees based on their membership in a “protected class.” California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act recognizes more protected classes than most other states in the country. If your employer terminated you because of any of the following protected personal characteristics, you may be able to pursue a case for wrongful termination:
Other potential grounds for pursuing a discrimination-based wrongful termination claim include termination based on genetic information, marital status, military or veteran status, and political affiliation or activities.
2. Retaliatory Termination
As an employee, you have the right to do certain things without fearing that you could lose your job. This includes
- reporting or opposing discrimination or harassment in the workplace,
- requesting a protected leave of absence,
- refusing to engage in illegal conduct, and
- reporting illegal conduct (or apparently illegal conduct) to a supervisor or other employee who can investigate and stop the unlawful practice, or to state or federal authorities (commonly referred to as “whistleblowing”).
Terminating an employee for engaging in these types of conduct is referred to as “retaliation,” and it is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, California Labor Code Section 1102.5, and various other state and federal laws.
3. Termination in Violation of Public Policy
Termination in violation of public policy is another exception to California’s at-will employment doctrine. It can provide grounds for a wrongful termination action by contractual employees as well. In California, a firing is considered in violation of public policy if it is based upon:
- The employee’s performance of a legal duty;
- The employee’s exercise of a legal right;
- The employee’s refusal to violate the law; or
- The employee’s reporting of a statutory violation affecting the public.
As you can see, the grounds for pursuing a retaliatory termination claim and a claim for termination in violation of public policy will, in some cases, overlap. It is not important that you know specifically what type of wrongful termination case you have. What is important is that you take action promptly, and this starts with scheduling a free consultation to discuss your legal rights.
4. Constructive Termination or Discharge
What if you have not been formally terminated, but your employer has made it so unbearable to do your job that you want to quit? In legal terms, this is referred to as constructive termination or discharge, and it can give rise to the same rights and remedies as a formal termination of employment. Examples of employment-related actions that may support a claim for constructive termination or discharge include (but are not limited to):
- Assigning an employee to work in dangerous working conditions
- Creating a hostile work environment
- Consistently assigning an employee to undesirable tasks or shifts
- Demoting an employee or writing unjustified negative performance reviews that prevent career advancement
- Sabotaging an employee’s work
5. Breach of an Employment Contract
If you have an employment contract, your employer may also unlawfully terminate you by breaching the terms of your employment contract. This could include terminating your employment without cause before the end of the stated term of the agreement, or terminating your employment for a reason other than those identified as grounds for termination. While the language of some employment contracts is clear, contractual provisions often leave room for interpretation. It will be important to review carefully the terms of your agreement in light of the applicable provisions of California law to determine whether you have a claim for damages.
Understanding At-Will Employment in California
In California, most people are employed as “at-will” employees. In fact, under Section 2922 of California’s Labor Code, a person is presumed to be employed at-will unless (i) he or she has an enforceable employment contract, or (ii) a statutory or public policy exception applies. Under the at-will employment doctrine, both the employer and the employee have the right to terminate their relationship at any time and for any reason.
Well, for almost any reason. Despite the sweeping language typically used to describe the at-will employment relationship, there are actually significant limitations on employers’ rights to terminate their employees. In California, an at-will employee’s termination is considered wrongful if it involves or is the product of:
- Violation of Public Policy
- Constructive Termination or Discharge
- Breach of an employment agreement