In California, an employment with no specified duration of time is considered “at-will.” As a result, an employer may fire an employee without “just cause” in an “at-will” state. On the other hand, an employee can quit at any time and for any reason. Not all California employer-employee relationships are at-will, however.
Figuring out the details of your employment is crucial to know if you are at-will, and if you can file a lawsuit for wrongful termination. HBK Lawyers APC can help you sort everything out. If you were wrongfully terminated, we can be your first line of offense against your former employer.
California Workers Exempt from At-Will Status
Public or government workers as well as individuals who have a written, verbal, or implied contract and employees who belong to unions may all claim exemption to the general at-will status under the California Labor Code. Exempt workers can only be fired for just cause by a California employer. The law defines just cause as any misconduct of an employee, or an unacceptable event related to the employee, that justifies immediate termination of the employee.
Notably, a California employer who decides to fire an employee for just cause must be able to establish that the fired employee exhibited seriously egregious behavior that broke their employment contract. Oftentimes, employee contracts and union agreements lay out the specific reasons and circumstances under which an employee may be terminated. If the behavior or action does not meet those circumstances, then it could be an incident of wrongful termination.
Exceptions to At-Will Employment in California
The following are exceptions to California’s “at-will” employment:
- Implied contract for continued employment: This is a legally binding employment contract that was never put into writing. Circumstances that help show an implied contract include the employer’s general personnel practices and policies, the amount of time the employee worked for the employer, actions or communications by the employer that assured the worker they could assume continued employment, and practices of the industry in which the employee worked.
- Implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing: If a California employee can establish that an express or implied employment contract existed, then he or she may be able to argue wrongful termination under the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. To do so, however, the fired employee must show that the employer acted in bad faith in order to deprive the employee from the benefit of the employment agreement, such as terminating an employee with a falsified reason or to prevent the use of employment benefits.
- Violation of public policy: When termination is a violation of public policy, California allows a wrongfully terminated employee to sue the company, even if the relationship was clearly at-will. This type of exception is dependent on the employer violating governmental law or commonly accepted ethical guidelines. For example, if you were fired after your employer told you to steal from a competitor, then it would be a clear violation of public policy.
- Fraud: There may be a case of misrepresentation If an employer makes promises to an employee to convince the employee to join the company, but later breaks the promises and fires the employee. The keys to fraud-based wrongful termination lawsuits is being able to prove the employer intentionally lied or used deceit, which puts an evidential burden on the plaintiff.
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