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At Will Employees & California Wrongful Termination Laws

Updated: Oct 11

Even "At-Will" employees have the legal right to file a wrongful termination lawsuit against an employer if they are fired or terminated for an illegal reason. Learn about the rights of At-Will employees for Wrongful Termination in California

Under California Employment Law, wrongful termination owing to discrimination or perhaps a worker reporting discrimination and harassment in the workplace is illegal in California. An employment lawyer in California put in contact with you through a California Bar Association Certified Attorney Referral Service can help.


California Wrongful Termination


California is an "at-will" employment state, which implies that employers have the right to fire employees for any reason. Employers in California, on the other hand, are prohibited from firing employees based on legally protected rights such as age (over 40), handicap, gender, religion, race, or sexual orientation. However, employers can not fire employees in retribution for reporting workplace discrimination, harassment, or illegal activity or for cooperating in workplace investigations. Wrongful termination is unlawful in California, and employees are protected by the law. State and federal laws protect employees and make it safe for them to report discrimination and harassment without worrying about being fired.

You might have a legal claim if you were fired or otherwise subjected to retribution because you reported illegal discrimination, harassment, wage or overtime pay violations, or involvement in the Armed Forces. Workers in California cannot be dismissed for requesting leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act or the California Family Rights Act, for asking for reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or for reporting criminal or financial misconduct by their company. Even if you are an "at-will" employee, you may have a claim for wrongful termination in California.

If an employee has a written or implicit contract with their employer and is terminated before the end of the agreed-upon period, they may be entitled to compensation for their damages as a result of wrongful termination or breach of contract. If an employer violates an employment contract, the employee is entitled to receive what they should have received under the provisions of the contract.


If any of these circumstances played a role in the decision to fire the employee, even if just in part, the termination is illegal under the law. In such cases, the wronged employee may be able to file a wrongful termination lawsuit. In the same way, wrongful termination could happen if there were more than one reason for the termination and one of them was illegal.

In addition to these considerations, wrongful termination arises when an employee is fired for exercising legal rights. When an employee is terminated due to pregnancy, family leave, or reporting sexual harassment, this is a common occurrence. Furthermore, firing an employee for reporting the employer's criminal activity or illegal and harmful working circumstances to government authorities (commonly known as "whistleblowing") is prohibited.

Employees who have been wrongfully terminated have the right to initiate a lawsuit and seek monetary damages from their former employers. Employees who have been wronged may be able to collect economic damages, such as lost income and benefits in the past and future. Emotional damages may also be compensated. Punitive damages may be awarded if the employer's actions are extremely malicious or reprehensible.

Other Forms of Wrongful Termination in California


Not all termination cases are straightforward. There could be a justification for unjust and legitimate termination within the same statement. This is known as a "mixed-motive termination." In some cases, an employee may have resigned before being dismissed because the working environment had grown intolerable, and the individual had no alternative but to leave; it is also known as "constructive discharge."

In any of these scenarios, you may have a claim for wrongful termination.

For a variety of reasons, you may be terminated.

A mixed-motive termination occurs when an employer terminates an employee for criminal and lawful reasons. When an illegal motive plays a significant role in the decision, the termination is wrongful.


If illegal motives affected an employer's decision to fire an employee, the employee might have a viable legal claim for damages, even if only partly.


Prejudice must be shown to have played a significant factor in the plaintiff's termination. The employer must prove that job terminations were made for legal and non-discriminatory reasons.


If the company can establish that it would have made the same termination decision for legal grounds, the plaintiff cannot be awarded damages, back pay, or a reinstatement order. If required, the plaintiff may be entitled to declaratory or injunctive relief.


Even if prejudice played a minor impact in the ruling, it is designed to deter workers from engaging in illegal activities. The plaintiff may also be entitled to a fair amount of attorney's costs and expenses.


Conditions That Cannot Be Tolerated


According to California employment law, constructive discharge happens when an employer knowingly creates unsafe working conditions for an employee, leaving them with no alternative but to depart.


In comparison to their coworkers, an employee is protected from working conditions that are unnecessarily harsh. On the other hand, the employee is not promised a stress-free work environment. Intolerable working conditions must be severe or part of a pattern. Because the working conditions are intolerable, any decent employee will leave rather than work there.


To prove constructive discharge in California, an employee must show two things:

  • Working conditions were especially deplorable, and any logical employee would be compelled to resign.

  • The employer either sought to force the employee to resign or knew about the situation but did nothing.

Employees who have been constructively dismissed may be able to launch a wrongful termination claim in the same way that they would if they had been fired directly by the company. Consider one of our prescreened Los Angeles Employment Attorneys in your California Attorney Search.


How to Recognize Constructive Discharge in California?

In California, constructive discharge (also known as constructive termination or constructive dismissal) occurs when an employer purposefully creates severe, unacceptable working conditions for an employee for improper reasons. Unfortunately, many California workers are being forced to leave because their working circumstances have grown untenable.

  • If the employee has no choice but to resign, they may be able to file a constructive dismissal claim. Under this view, you may have solid grounds for wrongful firing, as if you were shot in the head.

  • Many employees who are engaged under contracts and those who are engaged at will are liable to constructive discharge or termination.

  • If an employer forces a contract employee to resign without good reason, that person may have a constructive dismissal claim under several agreements.

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When Does It Count As Constructive Discharge If You Quit?


It's possible that your manager cut your hours or reduced your pay without cause. Employers can drive you to quit by mistreatment, coercion, abuse, discrimination, or revenge. No employee should have to deal with this, and you may have a case on your hands. Most workers in that situation, on the other hand, would wonder:

  • Is it true that if I leave, all of my legal rights will be lost?

  • Is it necessary for me to wait till I'm shot before taking action?

Your employer can terminate you at any moment, with or without cause or notice, because California is an "at-will" employment state.

At-will employees, likewise, can leave their jobs at any moment without cause or notice. There are exceptions to these fundamental norms, such as when an employer's actions are driven by prejudice.


Even an "at-will" employee can launch a lawsuit for employment discrimination if fired because of their age, ethnicity, gender, handicap, or other constitutionally protected attributes. Employees who work on a contract or for a limited time are often exceptions to the rule and are subject to specific legislation.


Fortunately, under California law, leaving is frequently considered the same as being shot. In this case, the legal concept of "constructive discharge" applies. As a result, a dismissal may not always be seen as a bar to legal rights and remedies.


If you quit, you would have the same rights and wrongful termination remedies as if your employer tried to force you to quit by creating intolerable working conditions for you through unconstitutional discriminatory actions (such as mistreatment based on:

It is critical to hire a California Employment Lawyer since these cases are intricate legally, especially regarding the facts you must present. Some background material on unfair terminations may also be helpful.


Examples of Constructive Discharge


Because claiming that a dismissal counts as a constructive discharge in California have a high burden of proof, it's vital to recognize the signals that you could have such an argument after resigning.


Listed below are a few examples:

  • A pattern of yelling at an employee.

  • Disparaging or bullying a coworker.

  • Harassment and humiliation

  • The employee's responsibilities are lowered.

  • Changing shifts and hours is something that happens frequently.

  • Unfair and illogical performance evaluations.

  • Putting the employee in danger.

  • Transfer to a different division or department.

It's vital to remember that none of these possibilities can result in a constructive discharge determination. The decision is based on the case's facts and is determined case-by-case basis.<