In California, most employees are at-will. This means that employees are free to leave their jobs at any time, and employers can fire workers for any reason, or no reason at all — unless that reason is illegal.
Unfortunately, employees across California are often fired for illegal reasons. This is also referred to as wrongful termination. A wrongful termination can happen in any number of ways, such as firing someone because of their race or religion. Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), firing someone on the basis of their race, religion, or membership in another protected class is against the law.
Both California and federal law provide extensive protections for employees, including regulating rates of pay and workplace safety. These laws also govern how, when, and under what circumstances an employee can be fired. When an employer violates these laws, the employee may have a claim for wrongful termination.
Below are some of the most common illegal reasons why employees are fired with useful tips on what to look for.
Reason 1: Discrimination
Under both the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers cannot fire an employee for a discriminatory basis. Generally, this means that employers cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of their membership in a protected class. California law is more expansive than federal law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of:
Age, if an employee is over the age of 40;
Physical or mental disability;
Gender, gender identity, or gender expression; or
Military or veteran status.
In simple terms, this means that an employer cannot discriminate against a worker because they have any of these characteristics. If an employer fires an employee because of one of these characteristics, then it may be a basis for a discrimination claim as part of a wrongful termination lawsuit.
In some situations, an employer won’t terminate an employee — but they will either create or allow the creation of a hostile work environment that leaves the employee no choice but to quit. This is known as constructive discharge and can also form the basis of a lawsuit under certain circumstances.
If you are fired — or are forced to quit — because of your membership in a protected class, then you may have a claim for discrimination and wrongful termination. These laws are complex and do have some exceptions built-in. For this reason, it is best to consult with an employment lawyer about the potential for filing a legal claim.
Reason 2: Retaliation
Companies in California are required to comply with a wide range of laws. For example, if a corporation produces toxic waste in its manufacturing process, it must follow state and federal law when it disposes of that waste. Similarly, companies must follow rules on workplace safety under both California and federal Occupational Health and Safety (OSH) laws.
If an employee reasonably believes that their employer has violated a law or regulation, that employee has a right to report the violation to their supervisor and to the government. Under California law, an employer cannot punish or fire an employee who makes such a report. If an employer fires an employee for reporting a violation, it may be considered whistleblower retaliation and wrongful termination.
Employers are also prohibited from firing or punishing employees who make a report or complain about unlawful discrimination or harassment. This is known as FEHA Retaliation. Consider a situation where Sally is being sexually harassed by her manager, but is afraid to say anything for fear of losing her job. John witnesses the harassment, files a complaint about it to human resources, and is then fired by the company for complaining. In this situation, John may have a claim for unlawful whistleblower retaliation, FEHA retaliation as well as wrongful termination.
In addition, employees in California cannot be retaliated against for refusing to perform work that would violate occupational health and safety laws. In most cases, employers cannot retaliate against these employees by firing them or otherwise penalizing them.
Employers cannot retaliate against employees for taking any number of actions, including:
Filing a workers’ compensation claim
Requesting a reasonable accommodation for their disability.
Talking about work conditions with colleagues
Complaining about illegal work conditions
Complaining about unpaid wages
Reason 3: Taking Protected Time Off Of Work
Under both California and federal law, there are multiple situations in which employees are legally entitled to take time off of work. If an employer terminates an employee for taking time off in accordance with the law, then that firing may be illegal.
For example, the state and federal Family and Medical Leave Acts (FMLA) allow most employees in California to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid family or medical leave each year. If an employee is entitled to take leave under FMLA, then it is illegal for an employer to fire them for exercising that right. Leave can be taken for a number of reasons, such as to care for a family member with a serious medical condition, to bond with a new child, or if the employee has a serious medical condition.
California law also requires most employers to provide paid sick leave. Employers are prohibited from firing employees for using their accrued sick leave. In addition, an employee cannot be fired for taking:
Pregnancy disability leave
Time off to vote
Time off for jury duty
Time off for military leave
Leave for parent and school-related activities (for employees of large companies)
If you are legally entitled to take this or another type of leave, then as a general rule, it is against the law for your employer to fire you for taking that leave. Being fired on this basis may be grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit.
Reason 4: A Reason That Violates Public Policy
California law lays out a number of situations where an employer cannot fire an employee, such as on the basis of their national origin. However, these laws are not the only potential basis for a wrongful termination claim. If a termination violates a fundamental public policy, then it may also be illegal.
A firing may violate public policy if:
The policy is supported by constitutional or statutory provisions;
The policy benefits the public or society at large (instead of just the individual employee);
The policy must have been well-established at the time that the employee was terminated; and
The policy must be fundamental and substantial.
This can arise in any number of ways. The most obvious example is when an employer fires an employee for refusing to do something illegal. For example, if a manager of a school bus company asks an employee to slash the tires of the competitor so that they can win a contract with a school district, that request is illegal. If the employee is fired for refusing to slash the tires of the other bus company’s vehicles, then they likely have a claim for wrongful termination because the request violated a fundamental public policy.
These types of claims may not be as obvious as ones that arise under a specific law, like being fired for filing a workers’ compensation claim.
Reason 5: Breach Of An Employment Contract
As noted above, most employees in California are at-will. However, some employees have employment contracts that govern their relationship with their employer. If the employee is fired outside of the terms of the contract, it may be the basis of a wrongful termination claim.
In many employment contracts, the circumstances under which an employee can be let go are spelled out in detail. Under this type of contract, an employee can only be terminated for the reasons and in the way specified in the contract. For example, many collective bargaining agreements provide that union members can only be fired “for cause.” If an employer fires an employee without good cause, then it may be an illegal firing in breach of the contract.
However, if the contract does not list how, when and why an employee can be fired, then an employee can only be terminated if (1) the employee willfully breaches (violates) their employment duties; (2) the employee is habitually neglectful of their employment duties; or (3) the employee is unable to perform their employment duties.
At-will employees can be terminated for almost any reason — as long as that reason isn’t illegal. If you have been fired for an unlawful reason, or if your employment contract has been violated, then you may be able to file a lawsuit against your employer. This process can be complex, and requires you to follow specific rules and procedures.
Odell Law advocates for employees throughout California who have suffered injustice at work, including wrongful termination. We will fight for your rights, and work to get you the compensation that you deserve for wrongful termination or any other illegal employment practice. To learn more or to schedule a free phone consultation, call us at 949-833-7106 or email us at any time.
The information in this blog post (“post”) is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice from Odell Law, PLC. or the individual author, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this Post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.