Unless there is an employment contract, most employers in California may fire you for any reason or no reason at all, just as you may quit for any reason or no reason at all. This is known as at-will employment. Most people are surprised to learn that their employer can legally fire them because their boss doesn’t like them and with no warning at all!
However, there are exceptions to this general rule. If your scenario falls under any of the following exceptions when you are terminated, the law considers you to have been wrongfully or unlawfully terminated and you may be entitled to compensation for your damages, such as wages and benefits you have lost and will continue to lose as a result of being wrongfully terminated. Similarly, if your employer makes working so unbearable that you are forced to quit (constructive termination), and your situation falls within at least one of the exceptions, the law also considers this a wrongful or unlawful termination to which you have available remedies.
If you have an employment contract that describes the reasons for which you may be fired and how you may be fired, and your employer fails to follow these terms when firing you, then the law may consider you to have been unlawfully or wrongfully terminated. It is important to know that not all employment contracts are obvious and sometimes employee handbooks may imply the existence of such contract and override an otherwise at-will employment relationship. Many employers take great care to add language to employee handbooks so that they don’t accidentally create a contractual employment relationship with their employees. This usually consists of a paragraph or two, or sometimes requiring your signature, emphasizing that nothing in the handbook is meant to be a contract of employment.
If an employer fires you based on or motivated by a protected category (discrimination-protected characteristic or category), the law also considers the termination a wrongful or unlawful one. These categories include things such as:
- race, color, gender or sex
- sexual orientation
- age (over 40)
- medical condition
- or disability
In most cases, it is also unlawful or wrongful for an employer to fire you for the following:
- reporting discrimination or harassment
- asking for or exercising a right you are entitled to, such as asking for reasonable accommodations for the following:
- a bona-fide disability
- taking family or medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act or the California Family Rights Act.
Against Public Policy
The law will also consider your termination to be a wrongful or unlawful one if you are fired (or are forced to quit) because you engaged in an activity that relates to an important public policy—in other words, that promotes the public good. This includes, but is not limited to, the following activities:
- Reporting an employer’s violation of a law
- Refusing to break the law for or on behalf of the employer
- Taking time off work to vote
- Taking time off work to serve on jury duty
- Trying to form a union or participate in union activities
It is important to note that the public policy that is being benefited by the employee’s activity that got them fired must be one that is recognized in law or by the Constitution, serves the common good rather than only the good of the employee, well-recognized at the time of the employee’s termination, and is “substantial and fundamental” (i.e., important and sensible). Many of these activities may overlap with other prohibited reasons for termination described above.
The exceptions above are not meant to represent a complete list. If you feel you have been wrongfully or unlawfully terminated, we recommend that you speak to an experienced employment lawyer.