We work hard at our jobs. We depend on our employers to treat us fairly. We are told that our employment is “at will” – that we can be fired at any time, for nearly any reason – or for no reason at all. But terminated employees have the law on their side when an employment termination violated a statute, regulation, or public policy.
Termination of employment – and even demotions and suspensions without pay – may be wrongful in one of three ways:
• The termination violated the terms of an employment contract;
• The termination was in violation of a state law or regulation; or
• The termination was in violation of public policy (e.g., because of race or gender, or because of a pregnancy).
At The Kristy Law Firm, we carefully evaluate each potential case of wrongful termination. We examine the circumstances of the termination under the light of all possible legal theories. When we take a wrongful termination case, we file a lawsuit and immediately begin preparing for trial.
We offer a free evaluation of your potential wrongful-termination case. We represent employees on a contingency-fee basis, which means that our clients owe us nothing unless and until we recover money for them. If you believe you may have been the victim of an unlawful termination of employment, call us today for a free evaluation of your case. Or, fill out the contact form for a free evaluation. Thank you, we look forward to discussing your case with you.
Wrongful Terminations in Violation of a Public Policy
It is true that employment in California is usually “at will.” A terminated at-will employee generally has no recourse. However, the courts make an exception when an employer terminates an employee for a reason that is contrary to public policy.
An employment, having no specified term, may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other. Employment for a specified term means an employment for a period greater than one month. (California Labor Code, section 2922)
Employment “at will” means that the employer is not required to give a reason for terminating an employee. And neither is the employee required to give a reason when she notifies her employer she is leaving. We will discuss exceptions to this rule later in this article; for now, let’s explore what it means to be an “at-will” employee.
Employment is presumed to be at-will if the employee was not hired for a specified time period longer than one month. Thus, an employee who was hired for a term of, say, six months, a year, or five years is not an at-will employee. But an employee is at-will even if he was told that his job is “permanent,” a “lifetime” position, or his for as long as he wants it. Under these circumstances, the employee has no more protection against being terminated than someone hired on a day-to-day basis. (Foley v. Interactive Data Corp. (1988) 47 Cal.3d 654, 678.)
An employer may terminate an at-will employee at any time, without notice, and for any lawful reason. (Guz v. Bechtel Nat’l, Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 317, 335–36.) Generally, the employer’s motive is irrelevant. (Id. at p. 351.) As long as the reason for termination did not violate California law, the employer is allowed to act arbitrarily or in a manner inconsistent with other employment decisions. (Id. at p. 350.) But the decision to terminate an employee is still subject to a powerful exception under California law.
The Public-Policy Exception to At-Will Employment
An employer that terminates an employee for a reason that violates public policy is liable for the tort of wrongful discharge. (Tameny v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (1980) 27 Cal.3d 167, 174-75.) A tort is the violation of a legal duty owed to another that results in harm to that person. A wrongfully terminated employee is entitled to recover compensation for all of the harm resulting from the firing – whether or not it could have been anticipated by the employer. (Civ. Code § 3333.) In addition to lost income and benefits, this may include compensation for emotional distress. (CACI, No. 2430.) In some cases, a jury may force the employer to pay the terminated employee punitive damages.
To satisfy the “public policy” requirement of a wrongful termination, the policy in question must be:
• Based on a constitutional or statutory provision (or ethical rules or regulations enacted under statutory authority);
• “Public” in the sense that it benefits the public at large, rather than merely the individual;
• Well-established at the time of discharge; and
• Substantial and fundamental.
(Stevenson v. Sup.Ct. (Huntington Mem. Hosp.) (1997) 16 Cal.4th 880, 894.)
Public policies protect an employee’s right to engage in certain protected activities, such as reporting unsafe workplace conditions and exercising his rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Public policy also protects against discrimination on the basis of “protected characteristics,” such as race, nationality, gender, or age. (City of Moorpark v. Sup.Ct. (Dillon) (1998) 18 C4th 1143, 1160.)
In a lawsuit for wrongful termination, the plaintiff-employee must prove, among other things, a connection between her termination and the protected activity she engaged in. (See Turner v. Anheuser–Busch, Inc. (1994) 7 Cal.4th 1238, 1258–59.) The public policies that give rise to a wrongful termination claim are not set in stone. California courts continue to develop the law of public policy in the context of employee terminations. For example, a female worker’s claim for equal pay rights under California Labor Code section 1197.5(a) “may well be a sufficient basis for a public policy claim….” (Green v. Par Pools Inc. (2003) 111 Cal.App.4th 620, 633 (dictum) (citing text).)
Determining whether a termination violated a public policy requires careful legal analysis. If you believe you may have been the victim of a wrongful termination, contact a lawyer immediately.