Were You Wrongfully Terminated? We Can Protect Your Rights.
California is an at-will employment state, meaning that both an employer and an employee can end the relationship at any time—and for any reason not prohibited by law. The law contains some exceptions to at-will employment, such as when you sign an employment contract. When either party wants to end the employment relationship, they can simply do so and part ways with no further obligations.
At-will employment does have its limits, however, as an employer cannot terminate an employee for a reason that violates any state or federal law. A termination of employment under at-will employment laws may violate the fired employee’s rights in many ways. When this happens—and the circumstances are limited, but real—that constitutes wrongful termination and an employee can hold their former employer liable for any harm that results.
Wrongful termination is difficult to identify, especially because employers are not often forthcoming that they fired you for an unlawful reason. You need a highly experienced wrongful termination attorney to evaluate what happened and advise you of your legal rights. At Winer, Burritt & Scott, LLP, we regularly represent wrongfully terminated clients and we can assist you in seeking justice.
An Overview of Wrongful Termination
That might sound a little circular—you are wrongfully terminated when your employer fires you for a wrong reason—but it has significance in the law, particularly in an at-will employment state. Wrongful termination takes place when an employer fires you in violation of your legal rights. In California, employees may pursue wrongful termination claims when an employer violates a state or federal statute, general principles of public policy, the worker’s employment contract, or some other aspect of the law. That last part can get tricky, but basically it leaves open a path for more creative arguments as to how and why an employer unlawfully terminated you.
While an employer in an at-will state such as California can generally fire you because they don’t like how you dress, how you cut your hair, how you stack boxes, and any number of other inconsequential reasons that seem like a bad reason to fire someone, they cannot fire you for an illegal reason. The short version of that is: Your employer can’t fire you for a reason that violates a state or federal statute, and your employer cannot fire you for a reason that violates public policy.
State and federal laws govern the circumstances under which an employer may let an employee go. Employers are not allowed to fire a worker for a discriminatory reason, such as the worker’s:
- National origin
- Marital status
- Medical condition
- Sexual orientation
Employers may not fire employees in retaliation for asserting their legal rights. Legal rights of employees include:
- Complaining about illegal harassment or discrimination at work
- Assisting with an investigation
- Reporting unlawful actions of an employer
- Reporting health and safety violations
- Requesting qualified leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act
- Filing a valid workers’ compensation claim
Should an employer terminate an employee in retaliation for an employee’s lawful exercise of rights, the company could find itself facing legal action by the fired employee and liability for wrongful termination.
Public policy is a concept that extends beyond actual statutory law. Whether a termination violates public policy is both fact-intensive and involves significant legal issues. Nonetheless, California law considers violations of public policy, along with statutory violations, one of the two main weapons that employees may use to fight back against wrongful termination, so it’s an important concept to examine. Terminating someone for the following reasons may violate public policy:
- The employee refused to do something illegal or unethical
- The employee reported a statutory violation of the employer
- The employee performed a statutory obligation
- The employee exercised a statutory privilege or right
More about violations of public policy later.
In more unusual cases, you might argue that you held an actual or implied employment contract that your termination violated.
In instances where an actual employment contract existed, your employer may only terminate you for reasons permitted under the contract, such as “just cause.” Whether a reason constitutes “just cause” is another fact-intensive concept, providing yet another point to argue in a wrongful termination suit.
Furthermore, you may argue that in the absence of a written contract, you and your employer had an implied employment contract. You must provide complex evidence to prove the existence of an implied contract and that the termination violated that implied contract.
It is critical to hire an attorney who understands how to prove these complicated claims.
Common Unlawful Reasons for Termination
California law, while purporting to set forth an at-will employment state, actually sets forth a pretty fair number of reasons that constitute wrongful termination. The primary California statute that protects employees from wrongful termination is the Fair Employment and Housing Act, commonly known as “FEHA.” The statute provides extensive workplace protections for employees in many areas, including circumstances under which it is legal for an employer to terminate an employee.
More accurately, FEHA sets forth circumstances or reasons that do not justify termination and, in fact, are illegal reasons for termination. Under FEHA, employers with five or more employees may not fire employees for any unlawful reason—including a lawful pretense for an unlawful reason.
That, obviously, gets hard to prove—and lies at the heart of wrongful termination law.
Among the most common reasons cited by an employee who claims wrongful termination is that the employer acted with discriminatory intent. FEHA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because of their:
- Age, for employees who are older than 40
- Race, color, ethnicity, national origin, or ancestry
- Physical or mental disability
- Use of family medical leave
- Pregnancy or maternity leave
- Political affiliation
- Medical condition
- Genetic information
- Marital status
- Sex, gender, gender identity, or gender expression
- Sexual orientation
- Military or veteran status
The statutes that codify these protections include the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal Family Medical Leave Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and other state and federal statutes, including the California Family Rights Act and FEHA.
Even if an employer does not target and fire an employee for any of these reasons, the employer also may not harass the employee for any of these reasons in such a way as to create a work environment that drives the employee to quit, effectively bars the employee from advancement or better assignments, or excludes the employee from work-related activities in any way. The categories above constitute protected classes of people under California law, and if an employer discriminates against or harasses such an employee in any way, even short of firing, the employer may face liability for damages.
Such actions could constitute:
- Constructive termination by creating a hostile work environment in an effort to force the employee to quit
- Retaliation for complaining about workplace health or safety
- Retaliation for complaining about wage or overtime issues, including the employer’s failure to properly pay legitimately due wages and overtime pay
- Retaliation for complaining about labor law or other workplace violations
Proving constructive termination or retaliation is no easy task. Generally speaking, your former employer will deny any discrimination, harassment, or retaliation and will instead give a pretextual reason for your termination. You will then have the burden of proving that the lawful reason stated was indeed pretextual and that the true reason for your firing violated anti-discrimination laws. While you will have a challenge on your hands, the help of the right wrongful termination law firm may help you prove this type of claim.
More Information About Violating Public Policy
Not every action an employer takes to get rid of an unwanted employee is a technical violation of the law, but those actions still can form the basis for a wrongful termination case. Employers also have an obligation to not take actions that violate public policy. This, obviously, can form a nebulous area of wrongful termination law. Despite the lack of a statutory reason to claim wrongful termination, employers are expected to know the fundamental policies of fairness and nondiscrimination embodied in state and federal statutes. Thus, even if a reason for termination does not fall completely within a statutory category for wrongful termination, the terminated employee might still have a claim based on a violation of public policy.
The state’s courts have put forth four broad requirements to arrive at the determination that an employer’s actions violated public policy. These requirements are:
- Constitutional or statutory provisions must support the policy
- The policy must benefit society at large, rather than serving merely the interests of the individual employee
- The policy must have been well-established at the time the employee was fired
- The policy must be fundamental and substantial
An obvious example: An employer fires an employee who refuses to violate the law or hurt others. Similarly, if an employer fired an employee for refusing to sign an illegal or unenforceable contract, that could violate public policy.
Under California law, a wrongful termination could have taken place if the refusal to perform an action deemed to violate public policy was a “substantial motivating reason” for the firing.
Complicated legal and factual issues determine whether a firing in California is simply “at-will” employment at work or a violation of statute or public policy. Employers can claim legitimate reasons for firing under the at-will doctrine—meaning that they claim a reason that was not unlawfully discriminatory—and countering that claim can present serious difficulties. Even if you believe that your employer fired you for a discriminatory reason, or a reason that violates public policy, that belief can remain extremely difficult to prove. The employer has control of virtually all of the relevant facts and information, including the true rationale for a potentially wrongful termination. Ultimately, getting to the truth of the matter could seem impossible.
Employers could even count on this difficulty to escape liability. While it is not a good idea to always assume that an employer used an improper motive for termination, it is prudent to look at the evidence available to you if you believe you were wrongfully terminated. Your situation might merit a deeper inquiry by competent legal counsel who can help you get to the bottom of the issue.
If You Believe You Were Wrongfully Terminated in the Oakland Area, Contact the Attorneys of Winer, Burritt & Scott, LLP
If you believe your employer wrongfully terminated you in the Oakland area, consult a lawyer to determine your rights. You do not want to enter this arena alone. The legally and factually complicated issues surrounding wrongful termination claims involve a substantial number of federal and state laws. You need an attorney handling your case who can identify all of your rights and options under all relevant laws.
The lawyers of Winer, Burritt & Scott, LLP, fully understand how wrongful termination cases work and know-how to face the challenges of these claims. We can assist you in protecting your rights under such circumstances. You can reach us at (510) 200-0162 or through our website.