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At Will Employees & California Wrongful Termination Laws

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

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.

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 contacts you through a California Bar Association Certified Attorney Referral Service that can help.


Learn about the rights of At-Will employees for Wrongful Termination in California


California Wrongful Termination


California is an "at-will" employment state, which implies that employers have the right to fire employees for any reason. On the other hand, employers in California 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 the law protects employees. 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 due to 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 contract's provisions.


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 is more than one reason for the termination, and one of them is 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 engaged under contracts and those 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?


Your manager may cut your hours or reduce 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.


Furthermore, California courts have found that such behaviors do not justify a legal argument unless they are accompanied by other facts, such as:

  • Wages, working hours, or benefits are reduced

  • Demotions

  • Other employees are given promotions, even when they deserve it more

  • incidence of mistreatment


Hostile Work Environments


California workers are afforded some workplace protections, or rights as employees, under the state's hostile work environment laws. These rules protect employees from harassment in the workplace. Employees have the right to be free of two types of workplace harassment: quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment harassment.


Harassment is a broad phrase that encompasses a variety of offensive behaviors. Harassment can involve the following, according to California law:

  • Verbal (e.g., epithets, derogatory comments, or slurs)

  • Physical (e.g., assault or physical harm)

  • The use of derogatory visual cues (e.g., derogatory posters, cartoons, or drawings)

  • Sexual favors (e.g., conditioning a benefit of employment on the exchange of sexual favors).

  • While sexual assault is against the law in California, harassment in a hostile workplace does not have to be sexual.

Hostility in the workplace can take many forms, but our prescreened Employment Attorney in Los Angeles is familiar with a handful of the most common causes. Listed below are a few examples:

  • In their communications with you, your supervisor or coworker makes offensive jokes or uses racial slurs.

  • Your employer or coworker shouts, swears, or uses other similar ways to show verbal hatred or frustration toward you.

  • Your employer or coworker expresses nonverbal animosity or wrath against you (such as slamming work onto your desk in an aggressive manner)

  • Your supervisor or coworker fires you because of your circumstances, feelings, opinions, or employment.

  • Your supervisor or coworker tampers with your personal belongings.

  • Your employer uses uneven techniques to prevent you from moving up in the company.

  • Your supervisor or coworker follows you, hassles you, or monitors your activities.

  • Your supervisor or coworkers may threaten you with termination, physical, emotional, or psychological assault, or unwarranted punishment if you do not perform something that is not within your scope of duty.

Again, workplace antagonism can take many forms, so if you believe you have been a victim, you should contact a Los Angeles CA Employment Lawyer as soon as possible. Even if you are unsure if you have a case, a skilled Employment Lawyer in Los Angeles will be aware of all the warning indicators of a hostile work environment and can assist you in establishing your case.


The same hostile or undesirable behaviors are repeated over time, indicating organizational aggressiveness. They've spread to the point where they're interfering with your professional and personal lives, and despite bringing the issue to HR's attention, little has been done to solve it.


Parties to Hold Accountable for Harsh Working Conditions


It is the employer's responsibility to end workplace animosity and guarantee that every employee comes to work in a safe and pleasant environment. Employees in California are protected against hostile workplace discrimination under California law. The statute also applies to those who aren't employees, such as:

  • Interns who are not compensated

  • Volunteers

  • Applicants for employment

  • Independent Contractors

Who is to blame when employees or others covered by California law are subjected to hostile work environment attacks?


For starters, businesses may be held liable for their employees' hostile work environments. If the bully was a boss, the boss might be held entirely accountable for the hostile work environment.

Employers may be held accountable if another non-supervisory employee creates a hostile work environment. If the employee isn't a boss, the company is liable if they knew (or should have known) about the situation and failed to take timely and reasonable corrective action."

Non-employees can also hold employers accountable for hostile work environments. If the following circumstances are met, an employer will be held accountable for the activities of a non-employee:

  • The employer knew or should have known that the employees' inaction put them in danger of abuse.

  • The employer failed to take timely and effective preventative or corrective action.

  • The employer had entire control over the right to take such action.

If the activities of a non-employee caused a hostile work environment, an employee might have a difficult time suing their employer under this standard. Second, anyone who participated in, assisted in, or supported bullying behavior may be held accountable to the employee for establishing a hostile work environment.


What do You need To Do When You Are Wrongfully Terminated?


Being fired is a terrifying and terrible experience for an employee. Getting caught up in the tornado of emotions and worries that comes with termination is easy. Fortunately, mechanisms exist to assist employees in navigating the legal system and safeguarding their rights.


Information gathering. If the employee believes the termination was unlawful in some way, they should begin collecting any information and evidence that will assist them in proving their case. At this point, documents, files, emails, text messages, videos, eyewitness reports, and other evidence supporting a wrongful termination claim are essential.


The fired employee should inquire as to why they were fired and who decided to fire them. In addition, they should ask for a copy of their personnel file. It's also a good idea to write down the employee's account of the events and conditions. This will assist in putting the facts into context and serve as a memory aid if the case proceeds to trial. You'll need this information when submitting a wrongful termination claim or lawsuit.


Seek legal advice. If an employee is abused, discriminated against, or mistreated at work and fears their actions may result in their dismissal, they should seek legal help immediately. If you've already been fired, you should seek legal advice as soon as possible.


Make a claim or launch a lawsuit to get your money back. Depending on the details of the situation, an employee may be required to make a claim with the appropriate governmental authority, or they may be able to skip the claim and register a complaint. In any event, a Los Angeles Employment Lawyer should be consulted. It's also worth noting that wrongful termination lawsuits are subject to a statute of limitations, and meeting this deadline is essential.


An employee must go through several steps to launch a wrongful termination lawsuit in California.


How An California Employment Attorney Helps With Your Case

Step 1: Determine If The Employee Is An "At-Will" Worker. The question of whether an employee is "at-will" is critical in determining whether or not a termination was legal. When does an employee's status go from "at-will" to "at-will"? In California, employment is regarded to be "at-will." This assumption assumes that an employee is automatically classified as "at-will" if one of the following requirements is met:

  • The position is just for a limited duration (e.g., for two months)

  • The parties came to an agreement on the reasons for the employee's termination by the employer.

  • The parties' conduct demonstrates that they agree that jobs will not be terminated unless there is a compelling reason.

Several elements play a role in determining whether the parties' actions suggest that the employment was not "at-will." The court will consider the following factors:

  • Employer-developed policies, handbooks, or guidelines

  • The length of time a person has worked for the company.

  • The employer's statements or actions that imply the job will be kept.

An employer's efforts can ensure that a job is kept in various ways. Employees can keep their jobs if they are given promotions, raises, and bonuses without acknowledging their insufficient or poor performance.


Step 2: Verify That The Termination Was Correct. When an employee's job can only be terminated "for cause," the termination is wrongful if the employer has no valid justification for firing the employee. Termination is also illegal if it is done in contravention of public policy, such as in retaliation for whistleblowing. Employers are also forbidden from firing employees based on discrimination or abuse.

  • Finally, the employer cannot create a terrible work environment that the employee chooses to leave. "Constructive discharge" is the term for this type of dismissal.

Step 3: Begin Collecting And Saving Evidence, Then Contact An Los Angeles Employment Lawyer For Termination. If the information is likely lost or degraded over time, the employee should start collecting it immediately. A prosecutor may also be able to assist with the gathering of information.

Step 4: Decide If You Would Like To File A Claim For Wrongful Termination Under State Or Federal Laws. Employees may be able to sue for wrongful termination under federal or state law in California, as explained below. The DFEH (Department of Fair Employment and Housing) in California gives information on how to file a case in the state. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) details how to initiate a wrongful termination complaint under federal law.

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How Long Does It Take To Bring A Lawsuit For Wrongful Termination?


Because each case has its own set of evidence, it's impossible to tell how long a wrongful termination lawsuit will take. Furthermore, whether the claim is filed with the state or the federal government determines the length of the litigation.


Federal Law Prohibits Discrimination


An employee must first file a petition with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic details before filing a federal complaint.


Because there are deadlines, you should file your claim as soon as feasible. Normally, the minimum is 180 days. Following the filing of the claim, a Notice of Right to Sue will be sent.


Within 90 days of acquiring this information, a lawsuit must be filed. The employee will be prevented from pursuing their claim if the case is not filed within the time limits.

Discrimination in the California Workplace

Employees can also file a state petition or a case in state court with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).

You must first register a complaint with the DFEH to acquire a right-to-sue notice before proceeding to court. This notice allows you to start the legal process without waiting for the DFEH to assess your wrongful termination claim. Keep the following in mind while launching a complaint about workplace discrimination in state court:

  • The DFEH will not conduct an investigation into the situation.

  • It is strongly advised that you contact an Los Angeles Employment Lawyer to help you file the case.

  • The lawsuit must be filed within one year of the right-to-sue notice's date.

  • The DFEH will not file your case with the EEOC.

Settlements Of A Wrongful Termination Claim Outside Of Court


The majority of unfair termination lawsuits are settled out of court. On the other side, some businesses are hesitant to settle out of court and would rather wait for their employees to submit a complaint. Although settling out of court might result in a larger settlement, legal fees, costs, as well as expenses would be lower than if the case went to trial. Attorney and court costs will limit the amount of any compensation that the employee sees.


Realistic knowledge of the gross loss of income and compensation (from the date of the wrongful termination), as well as the non-economic losses sustained by the termination, would benefit the settlement decision-making process.

How Much Does A Wrongful Termination Claim Cost in California?


The quick answer is that it is influenced by a variety of factors. The legal grounds for the wrongful termination, as well as the facts of the case, decide the damages in each case.


Winning a case usually results in compensatory damages, such as lost wages, benefits, and, in some situations, mental distress/loss of professional dignity. If the lawsuit is about prejudice, punitive damages are likely to be awarded. If reinstatement is suitable in each case, it will be determined by the circumstances; however, this is uncommon.


If the employee wins in court, the employer could be held liable for the employee's legal expenses.

Damages for Wrongful Termination Claims


Compensation damages might be awarded to a plaintiff in order to "make him whole again." Back pay and the cost of any benefits supplied to the dismissed employee by the company (such as healthcare) are included in lost wages and benefits.

This estimate starts on the day of termination. In circumstances where reinstatement is not an option, future missing wages will be awarded. Future unpaid wages begin on the date of the judge's order and continue for as long as the employee is anticipated to work.


Ex-employees have a legal obligation to reduce their losses. This means they have a responsibility to strive to reduce expenses by finding new work to make up for part of the financial losses experienced as a result of the termination. A judge will consider this while determining compensatory damages.


In addition, if the employee failed to find or accept a new job, the court would assess how much money they could have gained if they had.


Non-economic losses, often known as compensatory damages, cover subjective hurts that are not monetary in nature. The most typical types of non-economic damages in wrongful termination instances are emotional suffering and loss of professional dignity.

An employee must establish that their emotional or professional injury was caused by the wrongful firing, not by any other events in their life, in order to be compensated for non-economic damages.


Out-of-court settlements rarely include punitive damages. Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are based on the defendant's reprehensible behavior and conduct rather than the plaintiff's losses. These awards are in addition to any other damages that have been given, and they are meant to punish the defendant.


While punitive penalties are limited in several types of legal proceedings, wrongful termination claimants who receive punitive damages receive much greater average award amounts.

Possible Reinstatement After Wrongful Termination Claims


If an employee's case is successful, he or she may be rehired. This is generally futile in wrongful termination suits due to the enmity between the parties. Front pay would be awarded in this circumstance, which is the amount the employee would have earned if he or she had not obtained new employment. This will be taken into account when calculating the total amount of compensatory damages.

When a complainant is reinstated, they are granted the same level of seniority as they would have had if the unfair termination had not occurred, as well as back pay, interest, compensation for discrimination-related damages, and possibly punitive damages.


In addition, the employer would be liable for legal costs and reasonable attorney's fees.


Find An Employment Lawyer in Los Angeles for Wrongful Termination


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