Job termination is an unavoidable fact of life. Workers are fired all the time and, in most cases, for justifiable reasons. A company may decide to cut back on expenses by implementing layoffs. Alternatively, a given employee may fail to meet their obligations as far as the job is concerned, leading to them being terminated or, they can be fired for violating the company policy. And in given cases, termination is a mutual agreement between employers and employees whereby they determine that the relationship isn't a good fit for either party, so they have to end it. In these cases, the decision of the employer to fire the worker is lawful, and there is little a worker can do apart from filing for unemployment benefits and searching for another job.

But we also have cases where termination isn't justified and may be illegal. If you are terminated from your job, how do you know the dismissal was unlawful or wrongful, warranting a wrongful termination suit? Here is what you should know.

In California, Employment Is At Will

If you're employed in California State, you might not know that you work at will. Working at will generally means your employer can fire you with no good cause or with no cause whatsoever. It also means that you, as the employee, can resign from your job position at any time without facing legal consequences. However, at-will employment has limits. If your employer fires you for any bad reason, for instance, discrimination or retaliating against you for doing a lawful act, it's illegal.

Termination as a Means of Retaliation

Under federal and California laws, it's unlawful for your employer to harass, demote, fire, or retaliate against you or any job applicant for lodging a complaint about workplace discrimination or harassment or bringing a claim.  Additionally, you can't be terminated for participating in different proceedings, for instance, a lawsuit or investigation related to a legally protected course or because you exercised your legal right, like bringing a workers’ compensation claim or reporting a violation of the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Act)

Despite these laws being in place, there are particular ways through which an employer can retaliate against a worker. For instance, management may create a hostile working environment for an employee, making them uncomfortable and with no option but to quit the job. This is known as a wrongful constructive termination. Sexual harassment comprises speech or conduct of a sexual nature, but it could also be used in a hostile or retaliatory way.

As an employee, you're entitled to respect and dignity in your place of work, and you shouldn't be harassed or abused while performing your job duties.

Termination on the Grounds of Discrimination

Several federal statutes forbid an employer to terminate you on the grounds of genetic information, citizenship status, religion, disability, pregnancy, national origin, color, or race. But even though it seems as if you're fully protected under these laws, there are various restrictions. The laws generally apply to employers with fifteen or more workers, while age discrimination statutes apply to employers with twenty or more employees.

California's Fair Employment &  Housing Law protects citizens from discrimination against sexual orientation, age, gender expression, gender identity, sex, marital status, genetic information, medical condition, mental disability, physical disability, ancestry, national origin, color, religious creed, race, or veteran and military status. The state's Fair Employment Act also protects citizens from harassment, sexual harassment included. The Labor Code advocates for safe workplaces, including protecting individuals against workplace violence.

If you've been assaulted or harassed at the place of work or fired due to your status as a member of a protected class, you might have a basis for wrongful termination, harassment, or discrimination lawsuit. Note that for discrimination suits, there's a limited statute of limitations. Therefore, you want to contact a lawyer or file your complaint in the appropriate form before the statute of limitations expires.

You Have a Right to Time Off

Employment laws also protect workers who ask to take some time off from work for given reasons. Whereas you could be lawfully terminated should you miss too much time from work, you can't be fired if your time off is protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act, due to military service duties, or under specific other statutes protecting worker leaves.

You are also covered if you need time off from your job to serve on a jury, serve as an election officer, vote, or perform emergency duty as a volunteer firefighter, emergency rescue personnel, or reserve peace officer.

The time allowed for these kinds of activities isn't unlimited. Therefore, if you need to take time off for reasons related to these protected activities, you want to speak with your employer.

Termination for Whistleblowing

It is also illegal for your employer to dismiss you because of whistleblowing. Whistleblowing happens when an individual reports wrongdoing in a company for several reasons. Whistleblowing retaliation isn't always unlawful, but it is in given instances. If you know something unethical or illegal is happening at your workplace and you report it to the relevant authorities or speak out against it, your employer shouldn't fire you for doing so.

Workers who decline to perform unlawful acts when on the job are also protected. If your employer asks you to commit an illegal act, or you're encouraged to ignore safety rules or perform an action that places another person in danger, you may not be fired if you refuse to do so.

This protection does apply to both violations of wage & hour laws and safety issues. For example, if you decline to work a double shift since it violates a statute and you're terminated, you have grounds to sue the employer for wrongful termination. 

Termination in Violation of Good Faith and Fair Dealing

In case your employer unfairly acted when firing you, you may sue them for wrongful termination based on a violation of the duty of good faith and fair dealing. Your employer can breach the duty of good faith and fair dealing by:

  • Repeatedly transferring you to dangerous, remote, or otherwise undesirable job assignments to force you into resigning without collecting your severance pay or any other due benefits
  • Soft-pedaling the bad features of your job, for instance, the need to travel through dangerous neighborhoods late at night
  • Fabricating reasons to fire you when the actual motivation is to replace you with another employee who'll work for a lower pay
  • Misleading you about your chances for wage increases and promotions
  • Transferring or terminating you to prevent you from obtaining sales commissions

Dismissal for Fraudulent Reasons

In extreme scenarios, an employer's acts when dismissing an employee are so wrong and devious that they are considered fraud. In most cases, fraud is evident during recruiting (where the employer makes promises and breaks them) or during the final employment stages (for example, when a worker is persuaded or led to quit).

To show your termination occurred due to fraud, you have to prove that:

  • Your employer made a false representation
  • A person in charge was aware of the representation
  • The employer aimed to dupe you (or attempted to persuade you to rely on the false representation)
  • You indeed relied on the false representation
  • You were somehow harmed by relying on that representation

The most challenging part of showing fraud is proving your employer acted unfairly on purpose and in a deliberate attempt to deceive you. This needs proper documentation of when, how, through what means, and to whom the false representation was made.

Breach of Contract

If you have a written employment contract stating that your employment will last for a given period, your employer may not terminate the employment relationship ahead of time without being subject to a wrongful termination suit. To qualify as wrongful termination, however, you mustn’t have violated any provision that secured the employment.

Breach of Implied Employment Contract

Whereas most workers are at will and can be fired or resign for several reasons and at any time, an at-will worker may be more if the employer assured them that they could have the job for a given period or promised that the worker reasonably relies on their assistance. Breach of an implied contract can be challenging to prove as most employers are careful not to make verbal promises of continued employment.

Courts may take into account several factors when deciding whether or not an implied contract exists. These factors include:

  • Whether the employer violated any employment procedure in dismissing the worker, like neglecting to give the employee the required warning prior to termination
  • Regularity of job promotions
  • Assurances that a worker can rely on continued employment
  • The existence of positive performance reviews
  • The length of the employment relationship

Termination in Violation of the WARN Act

Another way to know if you have been wrongfully terminated is if your employer failed to abide by the state's WARN (Worker Retraining and Notification) Act. The state's WARN Act provides that employers provide workers with a sixty-day notice before conducting a mass layoff of fifty or more workers or relocating or closing a facility. The Act applies to any employer with seventy-five or more employees. If your employer failed to give a sixty-day notice, you could sue them for wrongful termination, and you may recover benefits or wages for the number of days by which the notice fell short of sixty days.

Defamation In the Course of Your Termination Process

A defamation lawsuit means to protect an individual's good standing and reputation in society. To prove defamation was the reason for your termination, you have to prove that, while terminating you or subsequently giving references, your ex-employer made malicious and false statements about you that ruined your chance of securing another job. To file a defamation claim, you must be able to prove your ex-employer:

  • Made false statements about you
  • Made those statements with malicious intent (that is, aware they were false) or with reckless disregard to its falsity
  • Wrote or told the statements to one or several other persons
  • Harmed you somehow by saying the statements, for example, by making you lose your job or preventing a prospective employer from considering you for the job

To win your defamation case, you have to prove the employer's hurtful words weren’t just petty gossip, but more than that. Actual defamation has to be based on factual info, and it has to be false.

Legal Termination Can Also Be Illegal

Regardless of the different laws protecting workers from wrongful firing, you can be terminated for legitimate reasons. However, even when termination is lawful, the employer must follow the correct procedure while doing so. They must obey any disciplinary process to which they have committed. Should they fail to do so, the worker can question whether they were lawfully terminated or not.

For example, if your employer has in their employee handbook that workers have the right to one written warning about lateness but fires you after coming late to work just once, you may have a legitimate wrongful termination claim.

Find a California Wrongful Termination Attorney Near Me

Since employment law is hard to understand, you want to always thoroughly read your employment manual to ensure you're within the laid down company procedures and policies. If you wish to file a complaint with your employer, understand first what the company rules say about lodging a complaint and abide by them. Put the complaint in writing and ensure to write it respectfully. Stress how much you respect and value your work and only want a safe and harassment-free working environment.

And if for any reason you believe you've been wrongfully terminated, you might have a basis for a wrongful termination suit. Consulting a lawyer is an ideal place to start. They will answer your questions then guide you towards the correct process of bringing a claim and taking legal action if need be. At Stop Unpaid Wages, we work diligently for employees throughout California whose workplace rights have been violated. Regardless of the reason for wrongful termination, we'll investigate the situation thoroughly to establish all the facts and build a compelling case based on the unique circumstances. Contact us today at 424-781-8411 for a consultation and case evaluation.