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An introduction to wrongful discharge of California employees

At our law firm, we provide advice to a wide variety of Northern California private and public employers about the employee-employer relationship, including under what circumstances it may be illegal under state or federal law to fire someone. It is wise for employers to have some basic understanding of the laws related to wrongful termination as employer-employee relationships begin and evolve.

What does the contract say?

At the time of hiring, the employer and the new employee often may negotiate an employment contract setting out the terms of employment. Some of the terms may set out the reasons the employer may discharge the person. A collective bargaining agreement may contain similar restrictions on discharge when employees belong to a union.

What if there is no contract?

Sometimes, an employee can claim that an implied-in-fact contract exists, based on employer policies and practices. However, most employees are not hired under a contract, an employment status called at-will. An employer may fire an at-will employee for any reason or for no reason at all, except for reasons that are illegal, such as retaliation for protected conduct, or discrimination based on a protected characteristic like disability or age.

Why might termination from a job be unlawful?

Many federal and state laws make discharging an employee, whether a party to an employment contract or at-will, under particular circumstances, illegal. Examples of unlawful termination include:

  • Termination in violation of public policy under California state law such as for raising concerns about an unsafe workplace or refusing to perform job duties that are illegal;
  • Discriminatory discharge based on a protected characteristic such as religion, sex, race or national origin, among others;
  • Firing in retaliation for an employee's complaint of discrimination or harassment at work or for the employee having cooperated in an investigation or claim of discrimination; or
  • Termination of a whistleblower who reported activity at work which they reasonably believed to be illegal to governmental authorities or to a person of authority within the employer's organization or another similar action.

Small to mid-sized employers without in-house legal departments should establish ongoing professional relationships with experienced employment lawyers who can provide information and counsel about appropriate and legal termination of employees under federal and state laws. It is important to get customized advice because employment laws in California are quite complex, and which laws applies to your company can depend on the type of employer you are, how many employees you have, and other factors.

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