California, like all states except for Montana, is an at-will state, which means employees can be fired or quit at any time and for any reason. However, there are a handful of situations where the at-will rule does not apply and firing an employee is considered a wrongful termination. In these situations, employers can be sued by those former employees, and they can be ordered to pay them damages to cover their lost income and expenses like job-hunting costs.
Terminations that violate state or federal laws
Terminations are considered wrongful when they violate state or federal laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employees from discrimination based on their race, religion, color, sex or national origin. The courts have recently expanded these protections to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. If you were fired and think discrimination was the reason, you should contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Employers also violate the law when they fire workers because genetic information reveals that they are more likely to develop certain medical conditions.
Terminations that breach employment contracts or violate public policy
Employers can also be sued for wrongful termination when the firing of an employee violates public policy. An example of this would be the retaliatory firing of a worker who reported wrongdoing, filed a grievance or attempted to organize a labor union. When workers have employment contracts that contain provisions dealing with termination, they can file lawsuits if those provisions are breached.
If you are fired and did not sign an employment contract, the chances are that you will have no legal remedies available because of California’s at-will labor rule. However, you could file a lawsuit and seek compensation if your employer violated a federal or state law or retaliated against you for engaging in behavior that is considered to be in the public interest.