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What To Do After A Wrongful Termination in California?

Updated: Nov 2

What Wrongful Termination Means In California Labor Law

Employers fire workers daily. It may be due to a lack of work ethic, a lack of experience, or something else entirely. For the most part, firing an employee in California is legal. Both the employer and the employee can terminate the working relationship at any time and without warning in an "at-will" state. H

However, you have the right to file a wrongful termination lawsuit if your boss fires you for the wrong reasons—illegal reasons.

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In California, wrongful termination occurs when an employer terminates an employee's employment agreement in breach of the employee's civil rights. A wrongful termination lawsuit can be filed by an employee who was fired for unfair purposes, exercising their legal rights, or violating an employment contract. When an employer terminates an employee's employment agreement in breach of the employee's civil rights, this is known as wrongful termination.

Even though California is an "at-will" jurisdiction, which means that an employer or employee can be fired at any time and for any lawful reason, with or without cause, and with or without advance notice. Nonetheless, wrongful termination lawsuits arise in California, where state and federal statutes expressly bar employers from dismissing workers for various illegal reasons. According to California termination rules, firing an employee for an illegal cause is wrongful termination.

Anti-Discrimination Laws in the United States and California

Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the Age and Discrimination Act (ADEA), the Equal Pay Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the California Family Rights Act, and the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Family Act all include anti-discrimination provisions.

Both the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) manage discrimination complaints.

Protected Characteristics that will be unlawful to discriminate against:

Retaliation and Harassment in California

Employers are prohibited from discriminating against or retaliating against employees who have exercised their legal rights under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Here's where you can learn more about FEHA. Retaliation may involve dismissing anyone for:

  • Reporting illegal activity

  • Making a workers' compensation claim

  • Making a health and safety complaint at work

  • Disputes over unpaid salaries or overtime

  • Violations of the Labor Code, such as failure to provide meal or rest breaks, should be recorded

  • Concerns about patient safety should be reported (healthcare workers)

  • Making a formal complaint to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

Job-Protected Leave

The California Family Rights Act (CFRA) mandates that employers with 50 or more employees provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave in a 12-month period for the birth of a child, the placement of a child in the employee's family for adoption or foster care, the serious health condition of the employee's child, parent, or spouse, and the employee's own serious health condition. Learn more about California's paternity leave laws here.

Sick Leave

  • Employees who are entitled to paid sick leave under the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act can do so for the following reasons:

  • The employee's or a protected family member's underlying health condition is diagnosed, cared for, or treated.

  • Preventive treatment for the employee or a family member who is insured

  • Obtaining civil, medical, or social assistance for an employee who has been the victim of domestic abuse, sexual harassment, or stalking.

Employees can accumulate and use up to 24 hours (three days) of paid sick leave each year. Total accrual cannot exceed 48 hours (or six days) per year, including carryover of unused accumulated time.

Defining an "Employee" in California

It can be difficult to distinguish between who is an employee and who is a California independent contractor. However, the distinction is critical because only an employee may file a wrongful termination lawsuit in California.

Fortunately, the California Labor Code and recent case law clearly define the distinctions between an employee and an independent contractor. In California, the terms "employee" and "independent contractor" are used interchangeably.

An employee usually works at the company's location, has fixed hours, conducts work that is part of the company's routine operations, receives company training and guidance, and is paid an hourly wage or salary. Furthermore, the corporation has control over how the work is completed.

Employees are entitled to various rights under federal and state law, including federal and state anti-discrimination legislation. These safeguards make it possible for an employee to file a lawsuit for wrongful termination.

Independent Contractors

In contrast to an employee, an independent contractor is described in California as "any individual who provides service for a specified remuneration for a specified result, under the control of his principal only as to the result of his work and not as to how the such result is accomplished."

An independent contractor is when a worker is employed to do a particular job with a specific outcome and has complete control over the process. The California Supreme Court recently broadened the concept of "employee," making it more difficult for employers to argue that employees are independent contractors.

To prove that an employee is an independent contractor under the new standard, an employer must show that:

  • It has no influence on how a person conducts his or her job.

  • The employee performs a service unrelated to the employer's regular operations.

  • The employee is usually involved in a well-established industry, trade, or career that is unrelated to the employer.

  • Independent workers are not allowed to sue for wrongful termination.

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The Majority of California Employees are "at-will"

Like the majority of other states, California is an "at-will" job territory, with the majority of its workers being "at-will." This ensures that employers are not required to provide reasons for terminating jobs, and workers are free to quit anytime.

If an employee is employed "at-will," the employer may fire them at any time, for any cause, or for no reason at all. When an employee is hired "for cause" rather than "at will," the employer must have a reasonable reason to fire them. If an employee fails to fulfill the job's duties, there is good cause in California.

Unlawful termination Isn't Justified by "At-Will" Employment

Employers cannot discriminate against an "at-will" employee who asserts their civil rights by breaking anti-discrimination laws. Employees who are dismissed for exercising their legal rights, unfair motives, or in breach of an employment contract may have a claim for wrongful termination.

Under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, there are clearly specified cases where an employer might have unlawfully terminated jobs.

Termination for any of the following reasons would be considered illegal:

  • Discrimination based on age

  • Discrimination based on a criminal conviction

  • Discrimination based on disability

  • Discrimination based on ethnicity

  • Discrimination based on family responsibility

  • Discrimination based on gender or sexuality

  • A workplace that is hostile

  • Discrimination based on a medical condition

  • Discrimination based on military status

  • Discrimination based on national origin

  • Discrimination against pregnant women

  • Discrimination based on race

  • Discrimination based on religion

  • Discrimination based on gender stereotypes

  • Harassment of women

  • Discrimination based on sexual orientation

  • Discrimination against transgender people

  • Political party membership

  • Discretionary dismissal – hostile work atmosphere

  • Retaliation for concerns about occupational health and safety

  • Retaliation against anyone who complains about unpaid salaries or overtime.

  • Retaliation for filing a complaint about a breach of the Labor Code, such as the failure to offer meal or rest breaks.

  • Healthcare staff is being retaliated against for reporting patient safety