California wrongful termination occurs whenever an employee is fired for an illegal reason. If this happens, you can sue your employer to recover damages. In some cases, the employer will have to pay significant extra penalties and costs.
If you suspect that you were fired for an illegal reason, give us a call for a free consultation. Click here for information about our Los Angeles office. Click here for information about our San Francisco office.
In the sections below, we explain some of the common situations where termination is considered wrongful in California.
California Wrongful Termination for Breach of Contract
If you are not an at-will employee, it is likely because your employment agreement states you will only be terminated under certain conditions, such as “for good cause.” If you do have such an agreement, then it would be a wrongful termination for your employer to terminate your employment for some reason not stated in the agreement. And if your agreement states you will only be let go for “good cause,” then your employer’s stated reason for letting you go must fit the agreement’s description of what is considered good cause.
Similarly, it would be a wrongful termination for your employer to state your termination was under the agreement if, in fact, the stated reason is merely a ruse for some other improper reason.
Even if you do not have a written agreement with your employer, a court could still determine that you have an oral employment agreement or an implied contract for employment. An implied contract might be found to exist, for example, if your employer has some sort of written policy stating that the employer only fires employees “for good cause.”
Breach of the Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing
If your employer fires you in a fundamentally unfair way, you may have a claim for wrongful termination on the basis that your employer has violated their “covenant of good faith and fair dealing.” In every contract, an “implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing” is imputed to both parties. This basically means that as part of any agreement, the parties are presumed to promise not to do anything unfair or in bad faith to deprive the other party of the benefits of the agreement. In the context of an employment relationship, this means an employer has a basic obligation to cooperate with its employee to allow the employee to accomplish his or her duties. Lies, evasions, deliberate inaction, lack of communication and other forms of interference or obstruction are all potential breaches of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and, under certain circumstances, could give rise to a claim for wrongful termination.
Retaliation for Complaints of Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment in the workplace is against the law. It is considered a form of prohibited discrimination. Your employer has an affirmative duty under California law to provide a workplace that is free of sexual harassment. Thus, it is illegal for your employer to fire you, or otherwise retaliate against you, for reporting or complaining about sexual harassment (whether directed at you or someone else), or for participating as a witness in, or instigating, a sexual harassment investigation or another proceeding.
Retaliation for Taking Family or Medical Leave
Your employer cannot fire you for taking or inquiring about family medical leave. California law protects employees against retaliation by employers for using accrued sick leave for diagnosis, care or treatment of an existing health condition, or for preventative care for the employee or an employee’s family member. California Labor Code §246.5. In fact, if you request to use paid sick leave and are fired within 30 days of your request to do so, this is presumed to be wrongful termination and the burden falls on your employer to prove that the reason for your termination was something other than your request for or use of sick leave.
In addition, employers may not fire you for exercising your rights to family or medical leave under the Federal Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the California Family Rights Act. If you work for an employer covered by one of these laws, you are entitled to take up to twelve weeks of leave for your own or a family member’s serious health condition. If you are terminated while on FMLA leave or within 90 days of returning from FMLA leave, again, the law will presume that this is a wrongful discharge and the burden shifts to your employer to prove that they did not fire you for that reason.
Your employer may not terminate you for “whistleblowing” – reporting the employer’s violations of local, state or federal laws, rules or regulations. Nor may your employer terminate you for reporting unsafe working conditions. California Labor Code §1102.5.
Retaliation for Complaining About Violations of California Wage and Hour Laws
Employers may not fire or retaliate against you for complaining about or reporting unpaid wages or overtime pay or unpaid meal and rest break violations or for filing a claim with the Department of Industrial Relations for unpaid wages, or for exercising any rights, whether on your own behalf or for other employees, that are protected by the California Labor Code. California Labor Code §98.6.
If you are fired because you are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or dealing with pregnancy-related medical issues or complications of giving birth, this is considered a form of pregnancy-related discrimination. This is a wrongful termination under the California Fair Housing and Employment Act and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. If you request workplace accommodations related to your pregnancy, including leave, and are denied or terminated as a result, this would also constitute unlawful pregnancy discrimination.
California Wrongful Termination Based on Discrimination
Employers are prohibited in California from discriminating against employees based on certain personal characteristics of the employee. All the individuals who share those characteristics are collectively called a “protected class.” Protected classes in California are:
- national origin
- age (if over 40)
- genetic information
- marital status
- sexual orientation
- gender identity
- AIDS/HIV positive status
- medical condition
- political activities or affiliations
- military or veteran status
- victims of domestic violence, assault or stalking
- citizenship status
If you are fired because of one of these things, it is a wrongful termination. There may also be additional protected classes based on your city’s laws. For example, in San Francisco, height and weight are also considered protected classes.
California Wrongful Termination for Violation of Public Policy
As mentioned above, in California, there are many reasons why your termination might be considered against public policy and, therefore, unlawful. Generally speaking, if you are fired for any reason that goes against California law, it could be considered a wrongful termination which would entitle you to seek and collect damages. Additional wrongful grounds for termination include:
- Disclosing information about harmful working conditions (such as failing to pay commissions or accrued vacation pay). California Labor Code §232.5
- Taking time off to serve on a jury. California Labor Code §230(a)
- An employee’s lawful conduct during nonworking hours and away from the employer’s premises. California Labor Code §96(k)
- Taking time off from work for activities related to the victim’s rights when the employee has been a victim of certain crimes. California Labor Code §230.5
- Requesting a lactation accommodation or expressing breast milk at work. California Labor Code §§1030-1033
If you believe you have been a victim of wrongful termination, we encourage you to contact us and speak with one of our attorneys. Click here for information about our Los Angeles office. Click here for information about our San Francisco office.