At-Will Employment and California Wrongful Termination Defense

Wrongful Termination

In California, most employment is at-will, pursuant to the state’s Labor Code.  This essentially means that either the employee or the employer can terminate the employment relationship at any time, with or without notice.  In this sense, employers are protected from many legal actions claiming that an employee should not have been fired.  There are, however, a number of exceptions to this general rule — which can leave employers in need of a knowledgeable California wrongful termination defense lawyer.

When Does an Employer Need California Wrongful Termination Defense?

Wrongful termination actions against employers are usually filed in California when the employment is either not at-will or when there is an exception to the general rule that an at-will employee cannot sue for wrongful termination.  Any time an allegation of wrongdoing in a termination is made, though, employers are wise to consult with a California wrongful termination defense lawyer.

Depending on the situation, the wrongful termination claim will have different burdens of proof.  Employers should take care to document all employment arrangements and ongoing interactions with employees, including communications with and disciplinary measures that are taken over the course of an employee’s service with an organization.  An employer’s attorney may be able to provide counsel in developing a California termination checklist that can be followed to aid in mitigating disputes and claims.

Employment Situations in California That Are NOT At-Will

Although there is a presumption of at-will employment in California, there are some employment relationships that are not considered at-will.  In these cases, wrongful termination actions against employers can be filed:

  • Employees who have written employment contracts:  Such contracts are most often at the executive level of an organization and might provide that the executive can only be terminated for good cause.
  • Employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA):  These employees are union members, and the CBA is essentially a contract with the employer.  Many CBAs contain a prohibition against termination of a union employee without just cause. 
  • Public sector employees:  The employment of those who work for federal, state or local governments is often governed by either a CBA or a statute.  In California, the civil service law contains a list of disciplinary violations that could lead to termination.
  • Other situations in which an employer has said or done things that overcome the presumption of employment at will:  For example, California case law indicates that employees can have an implied contract of employment even though that contract is not in writing.  An employer’s words or actions can also lead to an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

California Wrongful Termination Defense for At-Will Employment Cases

Even employment relationships that are at-will may allow for a wrongful termination action in the following situations:

  • Discrimination:  Even in cases of at-will employment, an employer may not terminate employees due to their race, gender, age, or membership in another protected class.  The California Fair Employment and Housing Act is one law prohibiting such discriminatory discharge of an employee.
  • Retaliation:  A number of Labor Law provisions prevent terminating an employee for taking various actions, including protesting workplace discrimination or discussing an employer’s workplace conditions.
  • Public policy:  If an employee is terminated because she or he performed a legal duty, refused to help violate the law or reported an employer’s breach of the law, public policy affords the employee a cause of action for wrongful termination if there is a statutory provision memorializing that policy.  Some specific examples of this exception are:
    • Whistleblowers:  Under Section 1102.5 of the California Labor Code, an employee is protected from termination based on exercising his or her rights to bring to light an employer’s misconduct.
    • Discharge on the basis of political activities:  Under Section 1102 of the Labor Code, employers are not allowed to terminate employment based on an employee’s political activities (or lack of activity).
  • Mass layoffs:  California’s Worker Retraining and Notification (WARN) requires an employer to give notice of a plant closing or mass layoff of 50 or more employees.

What Is Constructive Wrongful Termination?

As noted previously, employment relationships can be terminated by either the employer or the employee.  In some employee resignations, however, the outcome is legally considered to be a firing by the employer.  This is called constructive wrongful termination and it occurs when an employer intentionally or knowingly makes the conditions of employment so intolerable that any reasonable employee would feel compelled to resign.  Defending wrongful termination claims in California that arise from an employee’s resignation requires the guidance of an attorney who is knowledgeable in the statutes and legal precedent related to constructive wrongful termination.

Why Should You Contact a California Wrongful Termination Defense Lawyer?

An experienced California wrongful termination defense lawyer can help employers by assessing the at-will status of the employee(s), evaluating all circumstances of the employment relationship, reviewing related records and crafting an appropriate defense strategy.  A knowledgeable attorney can also help businesses structure employment policies and procedures in a preventive manner that reduces the likelihood of claims. If you need legal counsel or assistance defending wrongful termination claims in California, contact the Law Offices of Susan A. Rodriguez, A.P.C. by calling (213) 943-1323 or completing the firm’s online contact form.

Posted by Susan A. Rodriguez, Esq.

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