When someone is fired for a reason that seems unfair, his or her first reaction may be to sue the former employer for wrongful discharge. But upon further review, the discharged employee may be surprised to learn that he or she does not have a viable claim of wrongful termination. Under the employment-at-will doctrine, which applies in California and throughout the United States, an employer generally can fire an employee for any reason or for no reason at all.
There are certain exceptions to at-will employment. If an employee is covered by a union contract or other employment agreement that specifies the employer must have just cause for dismissal, the employer is bound by those contractual terms. An employer also may not discharge an employee for a reason that would constitute unlawful discrimination under state or federal law. Accordingly, termination on the basis of race, age, sex or other protected class status would constitute actionable wrongful discharge.
Retaliation is another basis for a wrongful dismissal claim. This means an employer may not discharge an employee for reporting activity that is illegal or violates some public policy, including things like fraud, unsafe work conditions or environmental abuses. The legal prohibition against retaliation also precludes an employer from discharging an employee who exercises his or her legal rights. For example, an employee may not be fired for filing a sexual harassment claim, participating in a complaint investigation or taking leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.
If an employee has been fired for a reason that he or she believes is discriminatory or constitutes unlawful retaliation, an experienced California wrongful termination attorney may be able to help. The attorney can review the circumstances surrounding the discharge to determine if there is evidence to support a wrongful termination claim.
Source: CNN Money, “Wrongful termination: What it is – and isn’t,” Anne Fisher, Feb. 22, 2013