Wrongful termination occurs when an employer-employee relationship is ended by an employer who violates an employee’s legal rights. According to California law, such a situation may arise when an employer breaches a state or federal law, general principles of public policy, the employee’s contract or some other element of the law. The state of California provides several protections for employees including stating the circumstances regarding how an employee may legally be terminated.
Who is an Employee?
In California, only an employee can file a claim or lawsuit against their employer for wrongful termination. This is because there must be an employer-employee relationship. A worker is considered an employee if he or she works under the direction, supervision, and control of an employer. There is a clear distinction between “employees” and “independent contractors.” While a contractor provides a specific product or service, the business has no right to control the means by which the contractor achieves that result.
The more control an employer exercises over the manner in which the worker performs their job and tasks related to the job, the more likely that worker is to be considered an employee by the courts. Workers who are not employees might have a claim against a business for breach of contract or a violation of some other law. Ending a business relationship in which no party is an employee would not meet the requirement to qualify as “termination.”
California is an At-Will State
Under California law, most employees are considered to work on an “At-Will” Basis. This means that the worker is free to quit his or her job at any time. Similarly, employers can terminate an employee any time for any lawful reason, or for no reason at all. This is the case unless there is a specific contractual relationship between the employer and employee that limits the employer’s ability to terminate the employee.
It is important to understand that your employer may decide to fire the employee for no good reason, even when the employee is doing a good job. This could happen even if the employee didn’t do anything wrong. While employers may not need a good reason to fire an at-will employee, they are prohibited from terminating their employees for unlawful reasons. Here are some examples of reasons for termination that may be illegal:
- Firing an employee due to protected characteristics such as race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or religion.
- Terminating an employee due to political beliefs or affiliations.
- Firing an employee because he or she requested time off to which they are legally entitled.
- Terminating an employee because he or she reported a violation of the law by the employer.
In other words, employers can fire at-will employees for any reason that is lawful. However, they cannot terminate employees for these types of reasons that could be deemed unlawful.
Exceptions to At-Will Employment
There are also some exceptions to “at-will” employment. Some employees have contracts and this limits the employers’ ability to fire them. In such situations, employees might be able to claim that they were wrongfully terminated because their employer did not have a valid reason to fire them. For example, in cases where an employer agrees to hire an employee for a certain period of time, but does not specify the circumstances under which the employee can be terminated, the employee may only be fired if:
- He or she breaches job duties.
- The employee routinely neglects his or her duties.
- He or she is not able to perform job duties for some reason.
A contract might be entered into verbally or in writing, and it is typically for a set period of time. A contract may also limit the employer’s ability to terminate the employee if it requires the employer to have a good reason for the termination. In addition, employees who are union members, for example, are not at-will workers. This is because unions negotiate an employment contract that allows only “for cause” terminations.
Laws that Prohibit Unlawful Discrimination?
One of the most common grounds for a wrongful termination claim arises when the employer has discriminatory intent in terminating the employee. In California, there are a number of laws that prohibit workplace discrimination. The California Employment and Housing Act prohibits employers from discriminating based on age, race, color, national origin, religion, physical or mental disability, pregnancy, marital status, sex and gender identity, sexual orientation or military and veteran status.
Under the law, the employer cannot target a worker for termination due to any protected characteristics. Employers cannot target an employee for harassment over protected characteristics or create a work environment in which being a member of a protected class puts the employee at a disadvantage or puts him or her at disadvantage. Similarly, an employer may not harass an employer for belonging to a protected class. The employer cannot create or maintain a hostile work environment that leaves the class member with no other option but to quit that job.
Here are some other laws that protect employees:
Immigration discrimination: All employees, regardless of their immigration status, are protected by California’s employment laws. While employers are prohibited from hiring undocumented workers, non-citizens are still protected against discrimination just as U.S. citizens are.
Language discrimination: Employers might commit wrongful termination if they fire employees for speaking a different language in the workplace. There are certain exceptions to the rule such as whether the language requirement is justified by a business necessity.
Political discrimination: California law also prohibits employers from controlling their employees’ political activities. So, for example, an employer cannot fire an employee for being a member of a political party or forbid him or her from going to political rallies.
Victims of crime: Those who have been victimized by a crime have a right to be free from workplace discrimination. The law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees who need to appear in court as a witness in a crime of which he or she was a victim.
If you or a loved one has been wrongfully terminated from your employment, it is crucial to contact an experienced Orange County employment lawyer who will help you seek compensation for back pay, punitive damages, and compensation for emotional distress, hospitalization, and suffering. Call our lawyers for a free consultation.