Wrongful Termination

As a California employee, your employment may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other, unless your employment has a specified term. (Labor Code § 2922). That not only means that you are free to quit your job for any reason, but that your employer may lawfully fire you for no reason, or for an arbitrary or irrational reason.

However, California courts recognize a narrow exception to this rule: there can be no right to terminate for an unlawful reason or a purpose that contravenes fundamental public policy. Your employer can’t take any adverse employment action, such as demotion or suspension without pay, for a reason that violates public policy.

Public policies include constitutional or statutory provisions or ethical rules or regulations enacted under statutory authority. For instance, under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), it is unlawful for an employer to discharge a person from employment because of his/her race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, expression, age, sexual orientation or military and veteran status. A discharge in violation of the FEHA may give rise to a claim for wrongful discharge. The California Constitution Act (Art. I, § 8) provides an alternative source of public policy for wrongful termination based on discrimination.

Your employer cannot fire you for exercising your constitutional or statutory rights or privileges. For instance, as a California employee, you have a right to designate an attorney or other individual to represent you in negotiating the terms and conditions of your employment and discharge for doing so violates public policy. You also have the right to receive your earned wages. Your employer cannot fire you to avoid paying accrued commissions or vacation pay. Similarly, your employer cannot discharge you for exercising your right to overtime wages.

You have a right to work in a safe and healthful workplace, a right to work in a workplace free of violence, a right to apply for unemployment benefits, a right to take family leave under the California Family Rights Act, and a right to work with women and minorities. It is unlawful to be terminated for exercising any of these protected rights or complaining to your employer about its violations of these rights.

California law allows your employer to require a drug test as a condition of employment after a job offer is tendered but before you go on the payroll. You may refuse to submit to random drug testing once employment has begun; however, the law is not settled as to whether you can sue for wrongful termination if your employer fires you for refusing a random drug test.

You also have a right to refuse to engage in unlawful conduct. For instance, you may refuse to violate rules of professional conduct, refuse to engage in unlawful employment discrimination, refuse to engage in fraudulent billing practices, and refuse to lie to a governmental agency. You have a right to report reasonably based suspicions of illegal activity (“whistleblowing”). You may have a claim for wrongful termination if you were fired for refusing to engage in any such conduct or for reporting unlawful activities by your employer or others.

A plaintiff may recover a full measure of damages in an action for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, including, in appropriate cases, damages for emotional distress and punitive damages.

If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated in violation of a public policy, such as due to discrimination or whistleblowing, we can help you. We have been able to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars for our clients who have been the victim of wrongful termination based on race, age, pregnancy, and medical condition, among other reasons. Our team can get to the bottom of the non-pretexual reason you were terminated and help you recover damages caused by your termination if it violated California public policy.