California is an at-will employment state, which means workers can generally be fired at any time without the need to show cause. However, there are exceptions that can form the grounds of a wrongful termination lawsuit.
Reasons for Wrongful Termination Claims
Wrongful termination cases encompass a wide range of complaints. The most common are related to:
- Membership in a protected class. Discrimination based on age, race, religion, or disability is illegal under federal law.
- Whistleblower actions. Under California Labor Code section 1102.5, employees can’t be fired because they turned in a co-worker or the company for illegal acts, such as theft or fraud.
- Filing a workers’ compensation claim. You can’t fire someone for seeking workers’ comp benefits after an injury, although termination may be acceptable if work restrictions can’t be reasonably accommodated.
- Political activities. Free speech laws don’t apply in a private workplace, but California labor law protects political activities and speech by employees. This includes union membership and participation in union activities as well as general forms of political speech.
- Performing a statutory obligation. Workers can’t be fired for failing to perform duties that are required by law, such as reporting suspected child abuse.
- Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) absence. An employee’s job doesn’t need to be held open indefinitely, but a similar one must be available when they return.
- National Guard commitments. Public policy and federal law require the positions of National Guard members to be protected while they are serving.
- Breach of contract. If a worker signed a contract when they were first hired, they can’t be terminated for causes not specified in the employment contract.
Employees who win a wrongful termination claim can recover damages for lost wages and benefits, emotional distress, pain and suffering, and attorney’s fees. Punitive damages may also be awarded in cases involving fraud, oppression, or malice.
Wrongful Constructive Termination Claims
Note that an employee doesn’t necessarily need to be fired to have a claim for wrongful termination. California’s wrongful constructive termination laws allow employees to sue if they believe their employer made working conditions so intolerable that they had no choice but to resign.
Protecting Your Company
A wrongful termination lawsuit should always be taken seriously. To build your defense, you will need thorough documentation of legitimate reasons for the employee’s termination and/or disciplinary actions you have taken. This could include documentation of behaviors such as excessive absences, poor performance, workplace substance use, theft, or harassment of other employees.
The labor and employment defense lawyers at Stone LLP can help you decide how to minimize the negative effects a wrongful termination lawsuit could have on your company’s profitability, productivity, reputation, and morale. For solutions-oriented guidance on this complex issue, contact us today.