What Can Constitute “Wrongful Termination” in California?

Employment in California is known as “at-will.” At-will employment is where either party may terminate the employment relationship without liability. In California, under the at-will employment doctrine, hiring an employee is presumed to be at-will, which means the employer may fire or terminate the employment for any reason, or for no reason, so long as it’s not for an illegal reason. The employee is also free to quit their employment, without notice, to the employer.

There are exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine, however. These exceptions, where the courts or the California legislature have decided that, despite the default at-will doctrine, certain action or conduct are unjust, include: Public Policy, Implied Contract, and Conventional good faith and fair dealing.

Under the Public Policy exception, a claim for wrongful termination may exist where an employee was terminated/fired in a manner that goes against well established, explicit public policy of the state. This would include firing an employee because of his or her race, gender, or disability, for example, but according to California courts, it can be anything with the “tendency to be injurious to the public or against the public good.”

Under the Implied Contract exception, a claim for wrongful termination may exist where, even though there is no traditional written contract between the employee and employer, an employer has made certain oral or written representations to employees about procedures that will be followed or promising job security. Employee handbooks can often include language regarding reasons an employee can be fired and procedures the employer will follow when taking disciplinary or adverse actions against an employee. These, as well as even verbal statements made by a supervisor or hiring official can potentially create an implied contract.

Under the Covenant of good faith and fair dealing exception, a claim for wrongful termination may exist where a contract, either express or implied, exists and one can establish that an employer acted in bad faith in depriving one the benefit of his or her employment agreement. For example, if an employer terminated you in a manner that violates its own policies, or terminated you in order to avoid paying a pension, bonus, or other earned pay.

For questions about exceptions to at-will employment and California wrongful termination, or to discuss your situation confidentially with a skilled California labor and employment attorney, feel free to contact LaGuardia Law.

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