California has relatively expansive employment laws. Many state statutes build on federal protections and enhance the rights of workers. However, California is still an at-will employment state. Companies can fire workers with little advance warning and for just about any reason. The trade-off for that lack of employment security is that workers do not have to worry about legal or financial culpability if they quit their jobs without notice.
At-will employment laws understandably confuse many people. Someone who loses their job in California to a layoff or termination might believe that they have no rights. However, at-will employment laws do not eliminate the possibility of a wrongful termination occurring or the right to take legal action if it does. They simply establish very specific standards for wrongful termination allegations.
Terminations for illegal reasons are wrongful
Although at-will employment laws grant companies the authority to fire workers for almost any reason at all, there are still certain reasons that violate state and federal statutes. There are two common scenarios in which California workers could bring a claim of wrongful termination.
The first involves retaliation. Multiple California state laws and federal statutes prohibit employers from punishing workers for using their rights. If a worker reports harassment, asks for medical accommodations or speaks up about regulatory infractions, they shouldn’t be at risk of punishment for doing so. Activities ranging from requesting unpaid leave after a medical emergency to unionizing with coworkers have protection under state and federal law. If employers terminate someone after they engaged in protected workplace activities, the firing could be wrongful because it was retaliatory.
The second form of wrongful termination involves discrimination. Companies should not consider personal characteristics like race, age, religion or sex when making decisions about who they keep on staff. If references to someone’s age come up during their severance negotiations or if a layoff involves a disproportionate number of people who belong to a specific group, the terminated workers may have experienced discrimination.
Wrongful termination lawsuits can lead to financial compensation and/or reinstatement of someone’s position with a company, depending on a worker’s situation. Documenting the circumstances that led to someone’s firing could help them prove that the termination was wrongful despite California’s at-will employment laws.