Being fired from a job is a major obstacle in and of itself. Not only are you without income until you can find other employment (sometimes without any time to prepare), but there are also the things tangential to your job that is affected. For example, what if you relocated for your job, or used the money from this job to support a family? In a state like California, where the cost of living is some of the highest in the country, this financial burden is even larger. The struggle of dealing with being fired is compounded when it is for an unlawful reason, but being able to pin down an unlawful firing can be difficult. Even with this said, around 150,000 people get wrongfully terminated in the U.S. each year.
Some of the most-high profile wrongful termination cases stem around discrimination, ranging from race to age to gender to disability to sexual orientation. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. According to California employee rights lawyer Corbett H. Williams, on top of discrimination reasons, people can be unlawfully terminated for exercising rights that they have under the law. In California, these include:
- Reporting unlawful conduct in the workplace to a government agency or to a supervisor (i.e., “blowing the whistle”).
- Protesting or reporting violations of California employment law, such as discrimination, harassment, wage and hour violations and unsafe work conditions.
- Filing a workers’ compensation claim.
- Requesting or taking time off for family or medical reasons, maternity, pregnancy, voting or jury duty.
- Filing a claim with the California Labor Commissioner (the DLSE).
It may be easy to feel that you have no recourse against your formal employer, but this is not the case, as many wrongful termination suits have been won. What you need to do, in California or anywhere else, is understand the situation of your firing and the laws on the books to give yourself the best chance.
Does “At Will” Apply To Me?
Part of the reason that many employers may feel that they can fire with relative impunity is the fact that California, like most other states, is an at-will employment state, which means a firing can take place at any time, without notice. We mentioned before that there are exceptions, including firing for discriminatory reasons or in response to certain actions on the employee’s part. There are other reasons on top of these that many constitute wrongful termination.
For example, if you have a contract that promises continued employment for a certain length of time, or limits the ability your employer has to fire you (like “good cause”), said employer is required to hold up their end of this deal. These contracts can take many forms, such as a written or oral agreement or a statement in documents like the employee handbook. If this is breached, you may be able to sue for wages, benefits, and anything else you should have received. This may also be something you can use to negotiate a severance package.
Another thing that you cannot be fired for is refusing to commit an illegal act on behalf of your employer. This is a bit similar to retaliation claims but has some important differences. Rather than being based on employment law like retaliation, public policy claims don’t need to be to be based in employment law or any other specific statutes. Note that wrongful termination in violation of public policy is a type of personal injury (tort) claim. This means that on top of lost wages and benefits, a successful employee can collect emotional distress and punitive damages. Other potential reasons for a wrongful termination case include defamation and breaches of good faith/fair dealing.
Handling Your Wrongful Termination
Above all, when you find yourself fired if you think there may be a cause of wrongful termination, try and see an attorney as soon as possible. It’s important to realize that in many cases, a termination is lawful, and you don’t get a satisfactory reason why. An attorney will help you sum up the details of your case, and give you insight on your potential for compensation. This is essential for helping to make an informed decision. Sometimes, different pursuits may be suited for certain situations. For example, you may want to get a severance package, get your job back, or go to court.
Wrongful termination is a bit of a maze to navigate, and it may take a while to determine whether your case qualifies or not. Regardless, know that there are laws on the California books to protect you, and with the help of a skilled attorney, you have the best chance of avoiding being taken advantage of by your former employer.