Many people think that since California is an “at-will” state, meaning an employer can fire you without giving a reason, that it prevents them from suing when they’re fired for something like their race, sex, or as revenge for filing complaints. Thanks to wrongful termination laws, that isn’t necessarily the case. Here’s more on your rights as an employee who’s been fired.
Hi. This is Know Your Rights with Kyle Todd. And today I’m going to go over: do I have a wrongful termination case in California?
Just an overview – I’m going to talk about the “background law,” which is at-will employment in California, as it is in almost every state, and some exceptions to that law including wrongful termination. And then I’m going to go over what you can do if you think you have a case, or if you want to remedy the fact that you might not have a case.
What is At- Will Employment?
So to start, the law in California, as it is in almost every state, is at-will employment. A lot of people have heard that term. And what it means is that the employer can hire you, fire you, and even treat you throughout the employment as they wish.
They don’t have to have a good reason or even any reason at all, to terminate you. That’s at-will employment.
The whole idea was a Laissez-Faire economic idea that employees and employers can both contractually create employment relationships at will.
It doesn’t take into account the fact that employees are economically dependent on their employers. And so when their employment is ended, it’s not just like ending a contract, it is indeed ending their livelihood.
The background law in California is at-will employment, but over the years, lawmakers in California, including the legislature and courts have crafted certain exceptions to at-will employment.
Exceptions to At-Will Employment
Now in seeing whether you have a case for wrongful termination, you have to see whether you fall into one of these exceptions to the at-will general rule.
So the first main exception is unlawful discrimination.
You may have a case if you were discriminated against for some sort of protected category, meaning something about yourself that you can not help, and that the law says you cannot be terminated for.
This includes things like race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, and other factors.
The other exception to at-will employment, the other way you might have a case, is if you were retaliated against for some kind of protected conduct.
This means that you were complaining about something that was illegal, or even something that you had a good faith belief was illegal, such as unlawful workplace harassment, discrimination, or illegal or unethical behavior on the employer’s part.
Now, not all complaints will trigger the retaliation protection, but a lot of them will. And if you’re not sure, you can contact our office to see if you might have a case.
As far as the types of retaliation, one main type is the “Fair Employment and Housing Act” (FEHA) retaliation, meaning if you complain about what you believed was unlawful harassment or discrimination and you were retaliated against, meaning fired for making those complaints, you might have a case.
The same goes for complaining about violations of the California Labor Code, such as not being paid all your wages or being able to take your proper breaks.
If you were retaliated against for speaking up about those things, you might have a retaliation case.
Do You Have a Wrongful Termination Case?
A lot of times people call our office and say, “I think I was wrongfully terminated.” In fact, wrongful termination is very limited under the law, and it includes only those reasons such as the ones I listed that lawmakers have carved out.
So if you were fired for some arbitrary or unfair reason, or even no reason at all, that doesn’t actually fall into one of the laws that protect you, you might not have a case.
If you’re not sure, call our office, and we’ll see if you do.
Another thing to note is that a union contract or other employment contract can protect you from this at-will standard.
It can create a better standard for you called good cause or just-caused termination. It’s one of the great benefits of joining a union is that your employer has to have a good reason to fire you.
So just to summarize the baseline law in California, as in most states, is at-will employment.
The employer doesn’t have to have a good reason or even any reason at all to fire you. But if they fire you for an illegal reason, such as discrimination or retaliation, you may have a case.
Another thing to note, is that you can work on organizing or joining a union in order to get that just-cause standard in your workplace. And we can help put you in touch with a union to potentially help you do that.
This has been Know Your Rights with Kyle Todd. I appreciate you watching.