Getting fired sucks. Despite the agony most people feel after being terminated, chances are the dismissal was completely legal. After all, California is an at-will state. But what if your gut tells you that your firing was illegal? Should you contact an attorney? Keep reading and I’ll let you know what constitutes wrongful termination in California.
Most employees in California are classified as “at-will” employees. At-will employment is a legal doctrine where either party can immediately terminate the employment relationship at any time with or without any advance warning, and with no subsequent liability, provided there was no express contract for a definite term. Employers often believe that they can fire an at-will employee at any time for any reason. This is false in California. A company can fire an employee for any reason except for a reason that violates public policy.
What Violates Public Policy?
This public policy position in California overrides the at-will employment principle. Although employment contracts are generally terminable at will (See California Labor Code § 2922), California courts recognize a narrow exception to this rule. An employer’s blanket authority to discharge an at-will employee may be limited by statute or by considerations of public policy. Tameny v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (1980) 27 C3d 167. While an at-will employee may be terminated for no reason, or for an arbitrary or irrational reason, there can be no right to terminate for an unlawful reason or a purpose that contravenes fundamental public policy.
But this begs the question, what does “public policy” mean? California courts have been interpreting this ever since the Tameny decision came down. If you believe your boss has fired, discharged, or laid you off for any of the below reasons, contact an employment lawyer as soon as possible:
- Gender discrimination – Pregnancy discrimination, sexual harassment, and other forms of gender discrimination are clear violations of public policy
- Unsafe workplace – Firing an employee for protesting unsafe working conditions violates public policy
- Political activity – Discharging an employee because of his political activity, particularly political speech, is a violation of fundamental public policy
- Race, color, national origin, or ethnic origin discrimination – Terminating an employee because he is black, brown, asian, or some other qualifying characteristic is against public policy
- Family or medical leave discrimination – Terminating an employee because he or she took family or medical leave violates public policy
- Prompt payment of earned wages – Failing to pay wages promptly is a violation of fundamental public policy
- Whistle-blowing – Terminating employees for disclosing an employer’s violation of state or federal regulations to a governmental agency violates public policy
- Testifying at a hearing – Discharge based on an employee’s taking time off (after reasonable notice to the employer) to appear in court as a witness violates public policy
There are many more reasons that qualify as wrongful discharge. Note that there is no “mean” public policy. Nor is there a public policy for jerk bosses, arrogant bosses, or critical bosses. That means than a boss can be mean, rude, and unbearable, but not violate public policy.
So how do you know if your boss’ conduct violates one of these public policy principles? Call an experienced lawyer today. If you would like to know whether your boss has wrongfully terminated you, contact an attorney for a free consultation.
Branigan Robertson is a California employment lawyer who exclusively represents employees in workplace disputes. He focuses his practice on sexual harassment, wage & hour, wrongful termination, and retaliation. Visit his website at BRobertsonLaw.com or call his office at 949.667.3025.