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What is At-Will Employment in California?

March 27, 2023 Legal Team

Most workers in California are “at-will” employees, meaning an employer or employee can terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any reason, with or without cause or notice. However, the reason cannot violate a contract or be based on discrimination.

Limits to At-Will Employment

While at-will employment is the default rule in California, there are several limitations to an employer’s ability to terminate an employee without cause. These limitations include the following:

Anti-Discrimination Laws

Employers are prohibited from terminating employees for discriminatory reasons, such as race, gender, religion, age, disability, or sexual orientation. If an employee can demonstrate that their termination was based on a protected characteristic, the employer may be liable for discrimination.


Employers cannot fire employees for engaging in protected activity, such as filing a complaint of discrimination or harassment, reporting workplace safety violations, or participating in union activities.

Implied Contract

If an employer terminates an employee in violation of an implied contract, the employee may have a legal claim for breach of contract. An implied contract can be formed when an employer makes oral or written promises to an employee that create an expectation of continued employment.

Public Policy

Employers cannot fire employees for reasons that violate public policy, such as reporting a violation of the law or refusing to engage in illegal activity.

Overall, California’s at-will employment law provides employers with a great deal of flexibility when it comes to hiring and firing employees. However, for employees, it means that job security is not guaranteed, and they should be aware of their rights and any protections that may be provided by their employment contract.

Steps to Take if You Believe You Have a Claim for Wrongful Termination

If you believe that your employer terminated your employment for an illegal reason, such as discrimination or retaliation, take the following steps:

  • Document the circumstances surrounding your termination, including any statements or actions by your employer that you believe were illegal.
  • Review your employment contract, employee handbook, and other relevant documents to determine if your employer violated any written policies or agreements.
  • Gather evidence, such as emails, performance reviews, and witness statements, that support your claim.
  • Consider filing a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Consult with an Orange County employment lawyer as soon as possible, who can help you file a legal claim against your employer if necessary.

Keep in mind that there are strict deadlines for filing a complaint or legal claim, so it is important to act quickly if you believe that your employer violated your at-will employment rights.

Time Limits on Wrongful Termination Claims in California

The deadline for filing a wrongful termination claim in California depends on the specific legal theory or claim you are pursuing. For example, here are some of the deadlines that may apply:

Discrimination, Harassment, or Retaliation

A complaint must be filed with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) within one year of the date of the alleged wrongful termination.

Breach of Contract

If you are claiming wrongful termination based on a breach of contract, the deadline for filing a lawsuit in California is typically four years from the date of the termination.