Can I Sue A Company For Wrongful Termination In California?

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Discharge of an employee for an unlawful reason is a wrongful termination

The term "wrongful termination" is often used without a clear understanding of what it really means. When is a termination wrongful in the eyes of the law? The answer is simple. A termination is wrongful when an employee is fired for an unlawful or impermissible reason. A termination on the basis of any of the following would be unlawful:

  • Physical disability (FEHA or ADA)
  • Mental disability
  • Use of Family Medical Leave (FMLA or CFRA)
  • Pregnancy
  • Race
  • Religion or religious practices
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation (i.e. homosexual, bi-sexual, etc.)
  • Gender identity (i.e. transgender, etc.)
  • Pregnancy or maternity leave
  • National origin
  • Political affiliation
  • Constructive termination - hostile work environment
  • Retaliation for workplace health and safety complaints
  • Retaliation for complaining about unpaid wages or overtime
  • Retaliation for reporting Labor Code violations, such as failure to provide meal or rest breaks
  • Retaliation against health care workers for reporting patient safety concerns
  • OSHA retaliation

Most wrongful termination cases are brought under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Also common are retaliation cases that occur when an employee is terminated for reporting an employers violation of the Labor Code and other laws.

"At-will" employment is not an excuse for wrongful termination.

Employment "at will" simply means that an employee does not have a contract for a certain length of time. The employee can be terminated at the will of the company. But, while we hear the "at-will" buzzword from employers' counsel all the time, terminating an employee for an unlawful reason is still a wrongful termination. This happens every time an employer decides to terminate an employee because of a protected characteristic, such as having a disability. It is a fact that unlawful terminations occur every day, and are regularly committed by some of the largest companies in the world.

Wrongful terminations occur where there are "mixed motives" -- i.e. where both permissible and impermissible reasons are the basis to terminate. 

When an impermissible reason is a substantial motivating factor in the decision, the termination is wrongful. If the company decision maker was motivated by any of the above factors in deciding to terminate an employee, even in part, then the employee may have a valid legal claim for damages.  The unlawful reason must only be something more than a remote or trivial factor.  This rule is important to employees because employers often provide pre-texts for termination that may appear facially legitimate. However, as long as the impermissible reason is something more than a trivial factor -- a very low standard -- the employer is liable.

Whistleblowers - Retaliation for reporting unlawful conduct by the employer

Whistleblowers are also protected from retaliation. A whistleblower is someone that reports illegal or unsafe working conditions to his or her employer, to a government agency (such as the Labor Board or OSHA) or to law enforcement. 

Labor Code section 6310 protects workers in California from retaliation for complaints about unsafe or unhealthy working conditions.  

Labor Code section 1102.5 protects employees who report or complain about illegal conduct by the employer or refuse to take part in unlawful activities at work.  This includes employee complaints about Labor Code violations, such as unpaid overtime, missed meal or rest breaks, or improper classification of an employee as an independent contractor. 

Anti-retaliation laws protecting whistleblowers have been strengthened over the years to include internal complaints to company management. In other words, a whistleblower does not need to file a complaint with the government to be protected from retaliation. A employee's complaint to a supervisor is also protected.

Constructive termination

Usually an employee must be formally terminated to support a wrongful termination claim.  An exception known as "constructive termination" may also support a claim. A constructive termination occurs when working conditions become so intolerable that no reasonable employee would be expected to continue working under those conditions and is thereby forced to quit.  Where an employee faces intolerable harassment based on, for example, gender or sexual orientation, or a physical disability, and that harassment continues with the knowledge of the employer, an employee may have no option but to quit or resign their employment.  This "constructive termination" is the same as an involuntary termination or firing and gives rise to a claim for wrongful termination.

Money Damages

An wrongfully terminated employee is entitled to recover past and future lost wages and benefits, as well as emotional distress damages. While the economic losses are calculated with more certainty, many factors govern the amount of emotional distress damages an employee may suffer. Attorney's fees and costs are also recoverable. Punitive damages are available when the employer's conduct was particularly reprehensible, malicious or done in willful disregard of an employee's legal rights. While most cases are settled before trial, verdicts in wrongful termination cases can be very large, which gives employers incentive to resolve these cases before trial.

California law provides some of the strongest protection in the nation to employees who have been wrongfully terminated.  Most attorneys specializing in this area will handle these cases on a contingency fee basis and advance all costs of litigation for the employee.  Most reputable attorneys in this area will not charge an up-front fee to investigate your case. The California Supreme Court recently clarified that employees will not be held responsible to the employer for any fees and costs unless their case was frivolous and totally without merit. On the other hand, when an employee wins his or her FEHA-based wrongful termination case, the employer is responsible for the employee's attorney's fees and costs.

Our firm only handles employment law cases and always represents the employee, not the employer. If you have questions about your particular case, we are happy to receive your call or email.

Howard Rutten

The Rutten Law Firm, APC

4221 Coldwater Canyon Avenue

Studio City, CA 91604

(818) 308-6915

[email protected]

Disclaimer: The answer is intended to be for informational purposes only. It should not be relied on as legal advice, nor construed as a form of attorney-client relationship.

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