Updated: Nov 11
A Guide To At-Will Employment And Wrongful Termination In California
California is an At-Will employment state, where you can be hired (and fired) at your employer's discretion. So yes, you can be fired for no reason. However, if your boss terminates your employment as an act of discrimination, retaliation, and policy violation, it is considered illegal.
That said, when your boss fires you for any illegal reason, you have grounds to file a California Employment Law Wrongful Termination Claim.
What Is At-Will Employment?
Workers in the United States who aren't covered by a union or other employment contracts are basically employed at will. Essentially, it means that a worker can quit, and employers can dismiss them at any time and for any reason (again, save discrimination and retaliation).
So though you are working at your boss's discretion, you still have some protection from illegal employment decisions. For example, at-will employees can be legally fired because their boss does not like their attitude. However, the same boss may not fire an at-will employee because they discriminate against their protected characteristics.
All employment in California is believed to be "at-will" unless the parties engaged agreed otherwise or there is an appropriate exception, according to California Labor Code 2922. It's worth noting that many contract employees are still "at-will" because it's included in their contracts (the employers make sure of it).
So yes, at-will employees still have protections against illegal reasons for terminating them. If you need help or more information on the matter, contact an Employment Lawyer in Los Angeles to help you map out your current employment status and find the legal solutions to a possible wrongful termination case.
Exceptions to the At-Will Work Rule
"Implied Contracts" can be used as an exception to the at-will employment rule. These can be verbal agreements, or the courts may look at both parties' actions to see if there was an understanding that the employee would not be fired without cause.
Consider the following scenario:
An employee handbook includes various causes for termination, such as poor job performance or misconduct. Furthermore, the organization has a policy of keeping employees on staff as long as their job performance is satisfactory.
If an employee with excellent reviews and no reports of misconduct is fired for the owner's nephew to take over the job, the employee may be able to file a wrongful termination claim. This is because the employee might have reasonably expected to keep their position based on the guidelines and previous practices.
If a recently terminated employee can show that they were engaged under an express or implicit contract, they might have grounds to claim wrongful termination under the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing exemption. This rule states that an employer:
Acts in bad faith when they terminate your employment agreement in violation of their own personnel policies
To prevent the worker from obtaining a benefit (such as a pension) to which they were otherwise entitled
By lying about the reason for the termination
According to federal law, employers cannot fire employees in retaliation for reporting discrimination, harassment, or harmful working conditions. However, retaliation lawsuits can be challenging to prove because the worker bears the burden of proof in establishing the action was retaliatory.
Furthermore, workers are typically terrified of being fired if they report harassment or harmful working conditions. Thus, just-cause legislation could aid in enforcing anti-retaliation rules in the workplace.
To help you better understand the unique circumstances of your case, get a referral to one of our prescreened Los Angeles Employment Lawyers to help you.
Can I Be Fired For No Reason Or Cause?
If an employer and employee do not have a contract, the employer does not need "cause" to fire the employee, and the person does not require "cause" to leave her position. At-will employment allows both parties to terminate the relationship if it becomes unworkable.
However, the parties can sign a written contract that guarantees the employee a set period of employment. Employment contracts with specific stipulations are used to attract and encourage highly skilled employees.
The "at-will" presumption vanishes when the length of an employee's employment term is determined. After that, the employer must have a solid reason to fire the employee, such as if someone did something illegal on company property.
In most cases, the employment contract also stipulates that the employer must give 30 to 60 days' notice before the termination takes effect. This allows the employee to look for new work.
If your rights have been infringed in any act of illegal firing, consult with an Employment Lawyer in Los Angeles as soon as possible.
Is It Wrongful Termination, Or Were You Just Unfairly Fired?
An employer or boss has the legal right to fire an at-will employee for any reason, even arbitrary or unreasonable reasons. In simpler terms, an employee can be fired because management has a personal grudge against them or because they are being replaced by a new applicant who appears to be less qualified. Of course, the dismissal may appear to be unjust and unethical. However, it is unlikely to be considered "illegal."
The termination must be prompted by an illegal reason or a violation of public policy to be considered illegal. An employer, for example, might fire a worker because she is Hispanic or disabled. An "unlawful policy" is defined as firing someone because of their race, ethnicity, color, national origin, or disability. The federal and state governments made it a priority to protect employees against discrimination in the workplace. Employees who complain about illegal behavior by the corporation or protest against participating in the illicit activity are likewise protected under the law.
Wrongfully terminating an employee in contravention of public policy is illegal. The employee is entitled to compensation, including back pay and punitive damages. In contrast, "unfair" termination is likely to be dismissed in court, and the employer may be able to recoup its costs from the employee. It can be challenging to tell the difference between an "unlawful" and "unfair" termination.
Knowing your rights when your job ends due to resignation or termination is critical. Ask an Employment Lawyer in Los Angeles to see if you have grounds to file claims to the proper agencies.
Wrongful Termination Laws in California
If you've been laid off, terminated, or fired from your job, you should first consider whether the dismissal was legal or not. Most jobs in California are "at will," which implies that an employee can be fired like so:
At any moment
For any reason
No reason at all
Of course, as long as the cause is legal. At-will employment does, however, have several important exceptions.
You are not considered an at-will employee if you have a signed job contract with your California employer that specifies the terms of your employment and the duration of the contract. You may, for example, have a job contract stating that you would be employed for a specified period of time. You may also have an offer letter, an email, or other written document stating that you will be employed in the future. You may be able to enforce such contracts in court if you have them in place.
Another exemption to the at-will law is an implicit contract, which effectively agrees on what your employer said and did. However, because wrongful termination is difficult to prove, this form of contract may be difficult to enforce.
When deciding whether an implied contract existed in California, the courts consider a number of elements:
The length of your employment
The frequency of your job promotions
If you have positive performance reviews
Your boss giving you assurances of continued employment
Whether or not your employer gave you notice of a firing or layoff
Whether you were guaranteed long-term or permanent employment when you were hired
All these factors count towards showing that the termination is considered an illegal one. In addition, proving that a contract, whether written or implied, has stipulations of the length of time you are able to work with an employer can qualify for contract claims. This is, however, all depending on your evidence, current status, and the case built by your Employment Lawyer in Los Angeles.
What Do You Mean When You Say "Unfair Workplace Practices"?
Your California employer may have fired you illegally if they breached their obligation or acted in bad faith. The following are some examples of unjust termination:
Intentionally deceiving employees about their chances of promotion or pay raises.
Laying off an older employee in order to replace them with a younger employee who will be paid less.
Transferring employees to unfavorable locations and assignments to force them to resign without receiving severance pay or other employment benefits to which they would otherwise be entitled.
Employees are being misled about the unfavorable features of a job in order to persuade them to accept the job or assignment.
Taking disciplinary action against an employee in order to prevent them from receiving commissions or other rewards owed to them.
When Employers Disobey Government Regulations
It is illegal to fire a worker while violating public policy. A California company, for example, cannot terminate an employee for voting, serving on a jury, participating in the military or National Guard, or filing a workers' compensation claim for an accident received on the job. Employees also cannot be fired for reporting unlawful or wrongful behavior at work to the police. Whistleblowing is the term for this. For example, you cannot be fired for reporting harmful working conditions to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Did My Boss Discriminate or Retaliated Against Me?
Companies in California are prohibited from firing at-will employees or workers based on discrimination. If you were fired or terminated because of protected characteristics, including cases like: