Employees who are terminated unexpectedly and without any reason given by the employer, may feel that they have been the victim of a wrongful termination. This type of situation can be especially upsetting to an employee who has been with a company for many years, has received consistent positive performance reviews and regular raises and has never been disciplined or written up for performance.
California is known as an At-Will State. Employment, having no specified term, may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other. California Labor Code §2922 Although there are a number of exceptions to swallow up the rule, generally speaking, this means an employee can be terminated any time, without or without cause and without any reason being offered for the termination. The employer may also change the terms of employment at will by altering an employee’s hours, position and pay.
An employer and employee may enter into an agreement that limits the employer’s ability to terminate employment at will. Such agreements may be oral or in writing. Obviously, the employee will have an easier time proving the terms of the agreement if the agreement is in writing. Under certain circumstances, the language contained in written policies and employee handbooks issued by the employer, may be the basis for an implied agreement. Other factors such as the length of employment and promises or assurances of continue employment may also support an implied employment agreement.
The at-will presumption may be overcome where there is an agreement between the parties that employment will be for a specified length of time or that termination can only be upon a showing of “good cause.” For example, if an employer agrees to employ an individual for one year, it may be wrongful termination to terminate the employee within the one year period, absent a showing of wilful breach or habitual neglect of duty or continued incapacity of the employee.
Similarly, if the parties agree that the employee will be terminated for “good cause” or other specified grounds, the employer is not entitled to terminate the employee at will. Where an agreement identifies good cause or other specific grounds for termination, the employer has the burden to demonstrate fair, honest reasons for the termination that are supported by substantial evidence and the employer is usually required to give the employee notice and an opportunity to respond before firing the employee.
Of course, it would be wrongful termination in California to fire an employee in violation of the Fair Employment and Act (FEHA) and corresponding Federal anti-discrimination statutes. Employers cannot terminate employees for discriminatory reasons and therefore are not shielded by the at-will statute for terminations that are motivated by a protected class such as age, race, national origin, mental and physical disability, religion, gender, sexual orientation and marital status, or a protected activity such as medical and family care leave, pregnancy leave and opposition to illegal discrimination and harassment in the work place. (California Government Code §§12940,12945, 12945.2)
There are many other exceptions that limit an employers right to terminate employment at-will. For example, it would be wrongful termination to terminate an employee for taking a military leave, attending specific types of judicial proceedings, taking time off to attend certain activities at a child’s school, opposing unfair pay practices such as failure to pay overtime and permit rest breaks and lunch breaks, or testifying at an unemployment hearing. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the exceptions to the at-will presumption, but rather provides some examples of the types of situations that may constitute wrongful termination. If you have been terminated from your employment and believe it may be a wrongful termination in Orange County, Riverside County, Los Angeles County or San Bernardino County, please contact Stevens & McMillan at (800) 738-3353 for a free consultation. This article has only touched on the general scope of the law and is for information purposes only. This article is not intended to give legal advice.