In general, employees in California are considered to be ‘at-will.’ At will employment means that an employment relationship can be terminated at any time for any reason, without just cause. An employer is allowed to terminate an employee at any time and for any reason, so long as the reason does not violate the law. Likewise, this means that an employee is allowed to leave a job for any reason or no reason at all. The at-will doctrine also grants employers the right to change the terms of employment with no notice and no consequences. This includes altering wages, eliminating benefits, and reducing an employee’s amount of paid time off. If an employer and employee have made no express oral or written agreement specifying a length of employment or grounds for termination, there is an established presumption of at-will employment (California Labor Code 2922). There are strong limitations and exceptions to the “at will” rule put in place by the courts, commonly referred to as violations of public policy.


In order to bring an action for wrongful termination, the termination must occur in violation of a public policy. The Supreme Court of California held that public policy claims must be “carefully tethered to fundamental policies that are delineated in constitutional or statutory provisions.” In order to be a fundamental policy, the policy in question must be:

  • Supported by either constitutional or statutory provisions;
  • Public in the sense that it “inures to the benefit of the public” rather than serving merely the interests of the individual;
  • Articulated before or at the time of the discharge; and
  • Fundamental and substantial.

Due to the broad definition of what can be considered a public policy, employees have a variety of weapons in their arsenal. There are various laws that apply to cases regarding wrongful discharge which act as the exceptions to ‘at will’ employment. These look to protect employees from being terminated for illegal reasons. For example, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits employment discrimination based on:

  • Race (California Government Code section 12940(a));
  • Color (California Government Code section 12940(a));
  • Religion (California Government Code section 12940(a));
  • National origin (California Government Code section 12940(a));
  • Physical disability (California Government Code section 12940(a); (physical disability includes, but is not limited to, AIDS, hepatitis, epilepsy, seizure disorder, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and heart disease));
  • Ancestry (California Government Code section 12940(a));
  • Marital status (California Government Code section 12940(a));
  • Sex or gender (California Government Code sections 12926(p), 12940(a));
  • Pregnancy (California Government Code section 12945);
  • Age (California Government Code section 12940(a); see California Government Code section 12941 (use of salary to differentiate between employees when terminating employment may constitute discrimination under FEHA if older workers are adversely affected);
  • Sexual orientation (California Government Code section 12940(a));
  • Perception that the employee has any of the above characteristics (California Government Code section 12926(m)); or
  • Exercise of right to unpaid leave under Family Rights Act (California Government Code section 12945.2).

There are California laws and Federal laws protecting employees from being terminated for participating in protected activities.

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