• JC Serrano

Suing for Wrongful Termination in California

Updated: Apr 26

What to do when your employer illegally fires you


In simple terms, wrongful termination is when an employee's job is terminated in breach of a contract or public law. An employer and an employee may sometimes enter into an employment contract that sets out the terms of the worker's employment as well as the reasons for terminating the employment.


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However, in California, if there is no employment contract in effect, the employment status defaults to at-will employment. If the employee is not in a protected class, at-will employment means that any party can terminate the working relationship at any time for any reason. Many unfair termination cases stem from the termination of someone in that covered class who is also an at-will employee.


At-will employees in California are afforded many basic rights under California law, including:

  • As long as the employer has more than five workers, fair accommodations are guaranteed if the worker's capacity to work is limited due to pregnancy or the job poses an unnecessary risk to the worker or her unborn child.

As long as the employer has at least 50 workers, guaranteed leave for particular circumstances such as:

  • An employee is suffering from a severe illness (or health condition)

  • An employee's loved one or family member (such as their spouse, child, or parent) is/are suffering from a serious illness, and the employee needs to take care of them.

  • The birth or adoption of a child(ren)

Discrimination is prohibited, including termination for reasons of sex, race, or membership in a protected class of workers. Employees are covered on the grounds of religion; gender-related circumstances, such as pregnancy or breastfeeding; gender identity or expression; sexual orientation; medical status; a medical condition, including genetic abnormalities, disease, or a history of cancer; military or veteran status; country of origin; race; ancestry; mental or physical illness and disability (including those requesting family leave or leave to deal with a mental or physical disability); employees requesting family leave or leave to deal with a mental or physical disability, etc.


For example, it is unlawful for a California employer to fire an employee due to:

  • Age

  • Gender

  • Race

  • Disability

  • Pregnancy


Other forms of discrimination:

  • National origin

  • Sexual orientation

  • Marital status

  • Requesting a medical leave

  • Requesting reasonable accommodation for a disability

  • Whistleblowing

  • Filing a complaint about sexual harassment


Protection from retaliation if you report a violation of state or federal labor laws to the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, participate in an investigation led by that department, or oppose an employer's violation of those laws.


Protection from being fired because of a disability and an employer's inability to make adequate accommodations for that disability. Anti-discrimination laws in the workplace cover employees. On the other hand, independent contractors are not entitled to any of the above rights and are usually barred from filing unfair termination lawsuits. However, the state recently broadened employee definition to ensure that employers enjoy the same rights and benefits as employees.


The employer must demonstrate the following to prove that an employee is an independent contractor:

  1. It has no say about how a person goes about doing his or her job.

  2. The employee is delivering a service that is not part of the company's regular operations.

  3. The employee maintains a separate corporation, trade, or occupation from that of the employer on a regular basis.


Grounds for Wrongful Termination


Wrongful termination cases come in a variety of forms. Here are a few of the most famous ones:


Breach of contract: This is the kind of unfair termination lawsuit that contracted workers can file. Suppose an employment contract specifies particular reasons for termination and the employee is fired for a reason other than those specified or before the contract's full term. In that case, the employee may file a wrongful termination lawsuit.


Termination for ulterior motives: An employer could fire an at-will employee for "cause" when the real reason for termination was discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, or another protected class. Suppose the employee may demonstrate that his or her protected status played a major role in the firing. In that case, he or she may be entitled to back pay, damages, and reinstatement through a wrongful termination lawsuit.


Another form of wrongful termination is constructive discharge, which occurs when an employer makes working conditions so unbearable for an employee that he or she has little choice but to leave. An employee must demonstrate that the working conditions were exceptionally intolerable and that the employer either intended for the employee to resign or had knowledge of the intolerable conditions and refused to fix them.


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The following are some examples of working circumstances that may lead to a constructive discharge claim: your employer cut your hours or reduced your pay without cause, or your employer forced you to resign due to mistreatment. It should be remembered that resigning rather than being fired due to unfair working conditions can result in the loss of certain rights provided to terminated workers, such as unemployment insurance and the right to file a wrongful termination lawsuit against your employer.


Discrimination-based termination: California's anti-discrimination laws are among the most strict in the world, covering far more categories of citizens than the federal government's laws do. (Details already discussed above)


Termination for violating the California Family Rights Act. The Act mandates employers (with 50 or more workers) to offer up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to employees for the child's birth or adoption. This also applies when an employee decides to care for themselves or a family member suffering from a severe medical condition. Employees are also entitled to sick leave, with the right to accrue and use up to three days each year.


Sick leave can be carried on from year to year, with a limit of 6 days of sick leave being used each year. Employees can use sick leave to diagnose, treat, and care for an employee's or a covered family member's medical problems and get primary care. Employees who are victims of domestic abuse who need civil, medical, or social assistance should take advantage of sick days.


Termination for reporting abuse or retaliation: In California, it is unlawful to fire an employee for reporting illegal activity, filing a workers' compensation claim, filing complaints about workplace safety, or reporting violations of the state's labor code, such as failing to provide employees with necessary breaks, mealtimes, and overtime.


What Should I Do?


Start collecting details that will serve as evidence when you file your lawsuit as soon as possible after your termination. It's important to act fast because you won't be allowed to return to work once you've left. The name and contact information of the person who made the decision to terminate your job, as well as the specified reason for the termination, are among the specifics you can gather.


You should also collect the names and contact information of colleagues or those who witnessed the events. You can also gather any records that can help you show that the termination was unlawful, such as emails, files, or text messages.


Our prescreened California employment attorneys will usually listen to the particulars of your situation for free and explain your legal options for redress under the state's employment and civil rights laws. Your wrongful termination lawyer will document your employment application, employee handbook, any arrangement you entered into with the employer about your employment for the case. Your official job description, proof of pre-employment screening, your resume, payroll records, and colleagues that have detailed knowledge about your working situation are all examples of facts that your counsel will consider while considering your case.


Notify the appropriate authorities at the federal or state level. Before bringing a federal discrimination complaint to court, you must first file a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If the state has a law banning discrimination on the same basis, the claim of discrimination must be filed within 180 days of the unfair termination.


If FEHA doesn't take your case, you must file a "Notice of the Right to Sue" with them. California Department of Fair Employment and Housing may provide this within a year of the incident of unfair termination you want to take to court.


If you file a complaint with the state, the department will determine whether or not to look into the matter. If the agency fails to prosecute the case, you have the option of filing a lawsuit in state civil court or filing a federal complaint.


If the agency investigates the complaint, you have the option of using the employer's dispute resolution services. In the event that your case is not resolved, the department will file a wrongful termination lawsuit on your behalf.


You have one year from the day you filed the Notice of Right to Sue to bring a wrongful termination case in court. If the department refuses to prosecute the case, the claim will not be forwarded to the federal government, and you will not be represented at the state trial.


Damages for Wrongful Termination


Wrongful termination is a civil tort, which means that plaintiffs must file their cases in civil courts and demand damages from the responsible parties. In wrongful termination proceedings, both economic and non-economic damages may be recovered. Claimants' out-of-pocket costs as a result of the unfair terminations are referred to as economic damages.


Among the payable damages are:

  • Wages/Salaries/Commissions lost as a result of the dismissal.

  • Loss of benefits that the employee was entitled to as a result of his or her work

  • If the employee can return to work, reinstatement is an option. If the employee is recalled, they will resume work at the same degree of seniority as before the termination.


If reinstatement is not an option, you will lose future salaries. Owing to the level of hostility between the employer and the employee (as a result of the termination and unfair termination proceedings) reinstatement is often not an option. Instead of re-employment, the employer must pay the employee the salary he or she would have received before a new job is found.


Employees may request non-economic damages in addition to monetary damages. The traumatic consequences of wrongful firing on an employee's life are referred to as non-economic damages. Emotional distress and loss of professional integrity are only a few examples of non-economic losses.


The majority of wrongful termination cases are settled out of court, saving the employer money on legal fees.


Wrongful Termination as a Result of Retaliation


Employers in California are forbidden from retaliating against workers who complain about their supervisors.

  • Inform the authorities of any breaches of the rules.

  • Object to, file a complaint against, or take part in an investigation into sexual harassment or discrimination.

  • Make a valid accommodation request due to a disability or religious convictions.

  • Under the California False Claims Act, you file or assist in a "qui tam" case.

These anti-retaliation provisions in the workplace address a major void in California employment law. Although workers are shielded from unfair termination in a number of cases, employees who do not lose their jobs but instead face adverse workplace conduct, harassment, or other forms of retaliation at work can have a more difficult time seeking legal redress.


Employees whose employers retaliate against them–but do not fire them–for exercising their rights under these laws have legal recourse under California's whistleblower laws and Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA") retaliation laws.


How to Tell if The Boss is Retaliating in the Workplace


In California, the following is the basic legal definition of workplace retaliation:

  • Since you participated in a protected practice, your employer takes adverse job action against you or treats you unfairly.