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An Employee’s Guide to Wrongful Termination Suits in California

California Wrongful Termination Lawyers

Wrongful termination occurs whenever an employer fires an employee for an illegal reason. But that begs the question: When is a termination illegal in California?   

Let’s walk through how the law defines wrongful termination, what it looks like in California, and what next steps are available for workers who think they have a case.

If you suspect that you were fired for an illegal reason, give our wrongful termination lawyers a call at (800) 668-7984 or send us an online message for a consultation.

What is Wrongful Termination in California?

In California, wrongful termination refers to the unlawful dismissal of an employee by their employer. It occurs when an employer fires a worker for reasons that violate state or federal laws. Common unlawful reasons include discrimination based on factors such as age, disability, or pregnancy. Employees who believe they have been wrongfully terminated may have legal grounds to pursue a lawsuit against their former employer.

In California labor law, wrongful termination in violation of public policy refers to the termination of an employee when the employer dismisses them for exercising a legally protected right or fulfilling a legal duty, as long as that right or duty is linked to a significant public policy concern within the state.

If you believe you’ve been wrongfully terminated in California, you may have grounds to take legal action against your former employer.

To pursue a wrongful dismissal claim, you must demonstrate that your employer terminated you in violation of California labor laws or public policy.

In other words, for an employee to have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit, they must be able to show that their boss has broken the law in some way by firing them. 

This is not always easy to do because most people accept employment “at will.” This means that you can quit your job at any time, for any reason, and that you can face termination at any time, for any reason.

So employers are free to fire employees as long as they don’t violate the various employee rights laws that exist. Below, we explain some of the most important of these employment laws.  

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Is California an at-will state?

Yes, California operates under the “at-will” employment principle. This means that without a specific contract, either the employer or the employee can end the work relationship at any time, for any reason.

When is it Illegal to Fire Someone in California?

The situations that make a firing a case of unlawful termination are much narrower than workers expect. But, they still do happen. Here are some of the common situations where your termination is considered illegal in California.

Breach of Contract

Some people have employment contracts that provide job protection by limiting when and how they can be fired. These agreements typically state that the employee can only face termination for “good cause” and define what behaviors qualify as “cause.”

In these situations, the employer’s reason for terminating the employee must fit the agreement’s description of “good cause”. If the termination reason does not fit the description, the employee can sue for breach of contract.

Breach of Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing

All legal contracts include an “implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.” This means that when two parties sign a contract, they implicitly promise not to unfairly undermine the other party’s benefits from the agreement.

This includes not intentionally misleading the other party. Or, taking any actions that would give them an unfair advantage over the other in the fulfillment of the contract. 

In an employment context, this means that an employer has a basic obligation to its employees to allow them to accomplish their duties. 

Lies, evasions, deliberate inaction, lack of communication, and other forms of interference or obstruction. These are all potential breaches of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

If you’re fired under these circumstances, you could have a claim for wrongful termination in California.

Retaliation of Complaints of Sexual Harassment

Workplace sexual harassment is considered an illegal form of employment discrimination.

Your employer has an affirmative duty under California law to maintain a work environment free of sexual harassment. And if they don’t, you have a legal right to report them for failing in their duty.

It’s also illegal for your employer to fire you for reporting or complaining about sexual harassment. This appiles when the harassment is directed at you or at someone else.

Taking adverse actions against someone who reports or participates in a sexual harassment investigation is considered retaliation. And it’s prohibited under California law.

If your firing is instigated by your participation in a sexual harassment proceeding, it could be grounds for an unlawful termination suit.

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Retaliation for Taking Family or Medical Leave

Your employer can’t 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.

In fact, let’s say you request to use paid sick leave and face termination within 30 days of your request. California law presumes that this is a case of wrongful termination.

The burden then falls on your employer to prove that the reason for your termination was something other than your request for or use of sick leave.

Additionally, your company can’t fire you for exercising your rights to family or medical leave. This is covered under the Federal Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the California Family Rights Act (CFRA).

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 face termination while on FMLA leave or within 90 days of returning from FMLA leave in California, again, the law will presume that this is a wrongful discharge. And your employer must prove that they didn’t fire you for that reason.

Whistleblower Retaliation

It’s also illegal for your employer to fire you for any kind of “whistleblowing”. This means, in essence, for reporting them for a violation of local, state, or federal laws, rules, or regulations.

For instance, if you report a health or safety hazard at your job, and your boss fires you in response, that would be a case of wrongful termination.

Retaliation for Complaining About Wage Law Violations

Similarly, your employer can’t fire you for filing complaints about any infractions of wage and hour regulations under California’s state Labor Code.

This includes if a worker complains about or reports unpaid wages, overtime pay, and/or unpaid meal and rest break violations.

Workers are protected from retaliation for filing claims with the Department of Industrial Relations for unpaid wages. Workers also have protection for exercising any rights, whether on your own behalf or for other employees, that have protection by the California Labor Code. 

Pregnancy Discrimination

Termination based on a worker’s pregnancy status is another example of unlawful firing.

Under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, employers can’t fire an employee based on their decision to become pregnant or due to complications or requests due to pregnancy-related medical issues.

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

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Discrimination Against a Protected Class

California’s civil rights law prohibits companies with five or more employers from discriminating against workers in hiring based on certain personal characteristics.

All the individuals who share those characteristics are collectively called a “protected class.” If your firing is based on your membership in a protected class, then it can be considered wrongful termination and grounds for a suit.

Protected classes recognized in California are:

  • Race,
  • Color,
  • National origin,
  • Ancestry,
  • Sex,
  • Religion,
  • Age (if over 40),
  • Disability,
  • 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, or
  • Citizenship status.

Certain cities may also include additional protected classes. For instance, in San Francisco, it’s also illegal for employers to discriminate based on a worker’s height and weight.

Violation of Public Policy

Under California law, employers can be sued for wrongful termination for firing employees who are exercising their legal rights, duties, or acting out of obligation to the greater public. This happens when a worker faces termination for:

  1. refusing to violate a statute
  2. performing a statutory obligation
  3. exercising a statutory right or privilege
  4. reporting an alleged violation of a statute of public importance.

For example, it’s illegal to fire someone for taking time off to serve on jury duty, since that is a legal obligation. You also can’t face termination for refusing to break the law on your employer’s behalf, such as by committing fraud.

The circumstances for this violation must potentially impact the public at large in some way, not just involve the personal interests of the worker and employer.

Other Forms of Retaliation and Discrimination

There are a number of other more specific circumstances where your firing could be considered unlawful retaliation and/or discrimination if it’s linked to other circumstances protected under California labor law.

For instance, seeking lactation accommodations, requesting benefits entitled to victims of certain crimes, or serving as a volunteer firefighter. 

The California Department of Industrial Relations maintains a list of these and other specific laws that prohibit retaliation and discrimination.

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What to Do if You’ve Been Fired Illegally in California

Workers who have faced termination under some of these specific circumstances can seek legal recourse by suing their former employer.

If a court finds that your firing is a violation of California law, you could be entitled to financial recovery in the form of damages.

A successful suit can bring compensatory damages for the employee, which aim to provide restitution for lost wages, benefits, or emotional distress from their firing, as well as payment of court fees.

In some cases, courts may also assign punitive damages to a company in the case when the impact of their violation is especially egregious.

If you suspect that you’ve been fired under illegal circumstances in California, consult with an employment lawyer who can assess your case.

An experienced wrongful termination lawyer can evaluate your situation, help you navigate your options for restitution under the law, and advocate on your behalf in court. 

Ottinger Employment Lawyers has been assisting workers who’ve suffered wrongful termination to get the recovery they deserve for over two decades.

Contact us online or give us a call at (800) 668-7984 to speak with one of our experienced California employment attorneys today to set up a consultation to discuss the details of your case. 

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