Wrongful Termination FAQs
Being unreasonably terminated from employment is frustrating, but it may not qualify as wrongful termination. A dismissal must meet the specific criteria detailed in the federal and state laws below for a termination to be considered unlawful.
To determine if your dismissal was lawful or a potential wrongful termination case, it is important to fully understand this area of employment law.
What laws protect me from being wrongfully terminated?
Several laws protect you from being wrongfully terminated. Over the decades, classes of people and specific actions have been protected by federal and state laws, including:
- Violations of public policy: A law prohibiting violations of public policy defines a termination to be wrongful if the public would find it ethically wrong. While legal interpretations of the law can be subjective on a case-to-case basis, one commonality considered a violation of public policy is terminating a person for refusing to commit an illegal act.
- Immigration Reform and Control Act: Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, employers can no longer terminate an employee based on their alien status. The Act does not apply to individuals who enter the US illegally. Instead, it protects anyone legally able to work in the country.
- Occupation Safety and Health Act (OSHA): The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for ensuring employees work in safe environments by implementing and enforcing safety standards. The United States Department of Labor branch provides education, assistance, research, education, and training.
When an employee notices a safety violation and submits a complaint, they are protected from being terminated in retaliation.
- Retaliation: Retaliation is a natural component of most anti-discrimination laws. Retaliation refers to a spiteful, punishing act towards an employee when participating in a protected activity. An employer cannot terminate an employee for exercising their right to report harassment, refuse unwanted sexual advances, or making inquiries about salaries to uncover discriminatory wages.
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Age Discrimination Act of 1967, Title I of the Americans with Disability Act of 1990, The Pregnancy Act: An employer may not dismiss an employee based on religion, age, disability, race, gender, national origin, or pregnancy.
California enhances federal anti-discrimination laws by adding the following protected classes:
- Gender identity and gender expression
- Sexual orientation
- Marital status
- Medical condition
- Military or veteran status
- Genetic information
- Requests for protected leave (e.g., the Family and Medical Leave Act, Pregnancy Disability Leave, leave to address serious personal health condition)
- Employee Polygraph Protection Act: The Employee Polygraph Protection Act prohibits employee firing if they refuse to take a lie detector test.
What is the difference between an “at-will” and “right to work” employment doctrine?
The difference between an at-will and right-to-work doctrine is crucial to understanding your employee rights. While there are many misconceptions, it is important to know they are not opposite concepts but separate doctrines altogether.
The right-to-work doctrine involves unions. When employees and unionized employees work together, the right-to-work principle gives the same rights afforded to the union members to the non-union employees. Non-union employees do not have the pay union dues to enjoy the same rights.
At-will employment protects an employer’s right to terminate workers for reasons not prohibited by law. It also affords employees the ability to quit their job at any time without having to give notice.
Employers in at-will states, including California, can dismiss an employee without reason. Employers are not required to give the employee any notice. Under the at-will doctrine, employees cannot take any recourse against a company for dismissal unless their termination meets certain exceptions to the rule.
One exception to the at-will employment doctrine is a written contract or union agreement that explicitly states acceptable reasons for termination. An employee or union may have a written contract that ensures that it requires cause for termination.
Another exception to the rule is the “implied contract.” An implied contract assumes the employee will not be subjected to an at-will termination. For example, most companies have employee handbooks that go over company policies to ensure all workers are aware of the same pertinent information.
While the at-will doctrine is up to the state, not the employer, failing to explicitly state the doctrine in the employee handbook may allow for a case for wrongful termination based on an implied contract.
To avoid the exposure of an implied contract, most company handbooks state that they are an at-will organization.
When is Being Fired a Wrongful Termination?
Do you believe that you have been fired unlawfully? You may be able to build a wrongful termination case to reclaim your job or collect punitive damages. Our employment lawyers can provide legal advice and possible remedies.
The truth is most people who have been fired feel that they have been wronged. Unfortunately, labor law doesn’t establish many illegal reasons for firing someone. Therefore, wrongful termination claims are generally not appropriate except under very specific circumstances.
In California, employment is “at-will.” That means employers can often freely fire someone unless there is an express or implied contract that requires “cause” or “good cause” for termination.
In other words, it can be difficult to prove actual wrongful termination. To succeed in a wrongful termination lawsuit, you may need to establish that some form of discrimination occurred.
Alternatively, you can show that you were fired in violation of state and federal laws such as whistleblower protection laws that forbid retaliation or laws that more broadly protect workers from employment discrimination.
Illegal causes for firing include:
- Reporting illegal activity by co-workers, managers, or owners (whistleblowing)
- The employees status in a protected class (race, color, national origin, sexual orientation, or other factors)
- Filing a workers’ compensation claim
- Reporting sexual harassment or other workplace misconduct
- Testifying in a sexual harassment investigation
- Taking medical leave under the FMLA to recover from an illness or personal injury
Some employment contracts do require legitimate cause for termination. The typical employee should not be expected to fully understand the nuances of the law governing wrongful termination.
To learn about your rights and legal options, your best course of action may be to take the time to discuss your situation with an experienced employment law attorney.
Contact the Sacramento law firm of Perkins Asbill to schedule an informative initial consultation.
I feel I was bullied into quitting my job. Is there anything I can do?
If you feel you were bullied into quitting your job, you may have grounds for a constructive termination case. Constructive termination is unique in wrongful termination law. Most wrongful dismissals involve protected classes, discrimination, or retaliation. However, constructive termination consists of an employee walk-out or resignation.
Wrongful termination cases can be expensive. Suppose an employer wishes to fire a specific employee but not be subjected to the legal remedies an illegal termination would produce. In that case, they may use unsavory tactics to drive an employee to quit of their own accord. California recognizes a behavior as constructive termination when an employer intentionally makes work-life hard on a particular individual to drive them out of the company.
Some common examples of constructive termination may involve:
- Reducing an employee’s hours so severely that their wages can no longer support them
- Demoting or transferring an employee with intention to cause harm
- Removing contractual benefits, including stock options, job retraining, or a company car
- Changing an employee’s schedule to produce conflicts of interest:
- For example, suppose an employee has a second job. Constructive termination can occur when the first job changes the employee’s schedule specifically to conflict with the second job. The act forces the worker to choose between the workplaces and lose half of their expected income each day the conflict occurs. It also endangers the employee’s good standing at the second job.
- Ostracizing an employee from meetings, workplace social events, out-of-work social events planned by the company, and assignments
Qualifying constructive termination events must meet two criteria:
- The employer did not have cause to terminate the employee
- The employer committed, encouraged, or created harmful and intolerable working conditions that forced the employee to resign
Discharge or wrongful termination is not the only retaliatory measure employers have been known to take against an employee who reports unlawful conduct in the workplace.
Demotion, a pay cut, downsizing, or a transfer that negatively impacts an employee’s pay may all be considered retaliatory actions.
Other forms of retaliation may include personal attacks on an employee’s character or job record. Retaliation cases can become exceedingly complex and contentious. It is vitally important to seek experienced representation early in the process.
Do I have any recourse if I believe I have been wrongfully terminated?
If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, you do have options. The most important step is to control your emotions. When your rights have been violated and your livelihood disrupted, emotions can be heightened.
Employees who behave rashly may damage their reputation and have difficulty finding employment. Some reactive behaviors to avoid include:
- Sending rude and malicious emails to your former employer and co-workers
- Stealing workplace property, including your favorite stapler
- Harassing your employer in front of your co-workers to humiliate or shame them
- Physically assaulting your employer, punching walls, pushing chairs over
- Shaming your former employee online or in any public form
- Actively encouraging co-workers to quit or instigating, participating in gossip, bad-mouthing, or otherwise promoting negative attitudes towards your former employer
Reacting with malice will only serve to hurt your claim and reputation. In addition, your former employer may choose to take legal action against your behavior civilly or criminally.
Instead, let your behavior reflect your professionalism, take control of the moment, and complete the following steps:
- Professionally but persistently seek an explanation from the company, supervisors, managers, and who issued the termination letter
- Gather all critical evidence, including audio recordings, emails, memos, and text messages
- If you have not started a logbook or calendar of events, create one with as much detail as possible
- File a formal complaint
- Seek the legal advice of an experienced wrongful termination attorney to address your particular circumstances
If you have never experienced a wrongful termination in the past, it may be helpful to consult an attorney who has handled hundreds of similar cases.
Speak to a Wrongful Termination Attorney
With more than 30 years of employment law as one of our primary practice areas, our wrongful termination lawyers know how to work through the intricacies of the California Labor Code, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, and other applicable laws.
The team at our Professional Law Corporation can step in quickly to protect your rights against employer retaliation and wrongful termination. Let our legal team stand by your side against your former employer.
We take the attorney-client relationship seriously, and we will work to protect you by applying the full protections of wrongful termination law. Our Sacramento attorneys are available to help you across the state, from Northern California to San Francisco and Los Angeles. To get started, arrange a confidential consultation by calling our law office at (916) 446-2000.