Most employment relationships in California are "at-will" relationships, meaning either an employee or employer may terminate it at any time for any reason, as long as the reason is not illegal. If an employee is terminated for an unlawful reason, then they can file a wrongful termination lawsuit seeking damages from an employer.
To avoid this type of claim, which can be costly, frustrating and take time away from the conducting business, employers should understand what makes a termination wrongful in California.
- The firing was discriminatory-Employees who belong to protected classes cannot be fired because of certain traits or memberships, unless they prevent a worker from performing essential job duties. In accordance with the Fair Employment and Housing Act, an employee may not be fired because of their race, color, national origin, disability, marital status or other protected characteristic.
- The firing was retaliatory-State and federal laws protect employees who engage in certain activities from retaliation and adverse actions like termination. For instance, you cannot fire an employee for filing a workers' compensation claim or reporting an employer's violation of laws.
- The firing was constructive-Though rare, claims of constructive termination can arise in California if an employee resigns because work conditions are so egregious that a reasonable person would leave the job. While there are numerous legal nuances and requirements that must be in place for this type of claim to be successful, it is one that a former employee may bring.
In order to prove their case, employees must show that these or other unlawful reasons were a substantial factor in their employer's decision. As such, employers should be prepared, by careful and routine documentation of the employee's personnel file, to explain the reason(s) for terminating the employee. The issues are complicated and ever-changing, so it is wise for employers to have legal representation when responding to wrongful termination claims. Better still would be to discuss employers' rights with an attorney in advance and try to avoid a claim in the first place.