Most employees are at-will employees. This means their employer can terminate their employment at any time for almost any reason.
But there are many exceptions to at-will employment in California law. An employee who loses his or her job for wrongful reasons has the ability to seek remedies under California wrongful termination law. If your employer fires you in violation of an implied contract or in violation of public policy, you may have the right to compensation.
Frequently Asked Questions About
The questions and answers presented in the FAQ are not intended to be exhaustive and do not constitute legal advice for your particular question, issue, or concern, nor does this FAQ create any attorney-client relationship or duty on our part to assist you. The information may help you think about your issues and ask the right questions if you choose to consult with an attorney.
What are some signs that I might have been wrongfully terminated?
There are several indications that an employee may have been wrongfully terminated. These include being terminated for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons; being terminated for exercising a protected right; being terminated without notice; and being terminated in violation of company policies. If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, it is important to contact an experienced employment attorney for advice.
Can I be wrongfully terminated if I never signed an employment contract?
Yes, an employee can be wrongfully terminated even if they never signed an employment contract. In California, most employees are considered “at-will” employees, meaning that they can be terminated at any time, for any reason, with or without notice. However, employers are still prohibited from wrongfully terminating an employee based on discrimination, retaliation, or other prohibited reasons.
Can I be wrongfully terminated if I’m undocumented or on a work visa?
Yes, an employee can be wrongfully terminated even if they are undocumented or on a work visa. In California, employers are prohibited from terminating an employee based on discrimination, retaliation, or other prohibited reasons, regardless of their immigration status. That said, employers are required to refuse to hire, or terminate, an employee once they learn of their lack of work authorization. You should note that filing a lawsuit against your employer runs the risk of retaliation by your employer. If your employer reports you to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for example, ICE is allowed to follow up on the report, even though by making the report the employer is engaging in illegal retaliation.
Can future employers find out if I file a wrongful termination lawsuit against a past employer?
Yes. Generally, this information is publicly available, as it is filed with the courts. However, certain information contained in the lawsuit may be redacted in accordance with state and federal privacy laws. Filing a lawsuit against an employer may affect your future employment prospects, depending on the circumstances of the lawsuit. Generally, employers are wary of hiring employees who have a history of filing lawsuits against former employers. Therefore, it is important to consider the potential implications of filing a lawsuit before taking any action.
How long do I have to file a wrongful termination lawsuit?
Under California law, you have two years from the date you were notified of termination to file a wrongful termination lawsuit. There could be retaliation claims based on the same events that have a three-year deadline for filing.
I am a contractor. Can I file a wrongful termination lawsuit?
Generally, no. Usually, only employees have protections against termination for illicit reasons. However, if a worker is misclassified as a contractor when they should be considered an employee, that worker may claim wrongful termination. Such a claim would first require the worker to successfully prove that they were misclassified.
What if my employer lies about their reasons for firing me?
An employer might assert that a termination was for a lawful reason, and you may dispute the truthfulness of that assertion. During a lawsuit you have the opportunity to argue that the employer’s given reason was not the true motivation for the termination.
What if my employee handbook says my employment is “at will?”
Most employees in California are “at-will” employees, meaning they can be terminated at any time without cause. But even at-will employees are entitled to protection against termination that is illegal. For example, it is illegal to terminate an employee for participating in a lawsuit against their employer, or because of discrimination against protected characteristics such as age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or pregnancy.
California Wrongful Termination for Violation of Public Policy
California employees also have the right to be free from wrongful termination (or wrongful failure to promote or demotion):
- In violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act
- Due to failure to provide reasonable accommodation for disability
- As retaliation for a qui tam lawsuit
- In violation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s whistleblower protections
- Because of the employees’ political speech or activities outside of work
California’s WARN Act in Mass Layoffs or Business Closures
Wrongful Termination Based on Discrimination
Discrimination involves job decisions – such as hiring, firing, and setting work conditions – that are conducted in a discriminatory manner. California employment discrimination law prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on:
- Race, color or ethnicity
- National origin and ancestry
- Age (40 and over)
- Sexual orientation
- Gender identity, gender expression
- Pregnancy (including childbirth, breastfeeding)
- Disability and medical condition, mental and physical
- Marital status
California employment discrimination law also prohibits employers from discriminating because of the employer’s perception that that the worker has a protected trait or because the worker has associated with or advocated for coworkers who have these protected traits.
Employers that commit or fail to address discrimination in the workplace may be held accountable by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).
California Wrongful Termination for Complaints of Workplace Harassment
The Federal Civil Rights Act and various California state laws, including the Fair Employment and Housing Act, help to protect against workplace harassment. Harassment is mistreatment based on a protected class to the point of creating a “hostile work environment.”
California and federal law prohibit sexual harassment at work, which may take the form of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. The law also prohibits quid pro quo harassment, in which employees are offered rewards for sexual acts at work.