When an employer ends an employment relationship by violating a worker’s rights, the employer has engaged in an act of wrongful termination. In California, employees file wrongful termination claims for a variety of reasons that include violations of state and/or federal employment law, not following the legal principles applied to public policy, and unlawfully ending an employment contract.
California specifies under what workplace conditions an employer can legally fire an employee. The first step to learning the basics of wrongful termination law in California is to define “employee.”
Legal Definition of Employee
California employment law stipulates the only employees have the right to file a claim or a lawsuit against an employer for wrongful termination. The reason for the definition is because it requires an employer to end an employment relationship. Although the definition of “employee” depends on the type of wrongful termination alleged by a worker, employee typically means a worker who is under the control, direction, and supervision of an employer.
Courts have ruled in several cases that the more control exerted over an employee, the more likely the worker and employer have established an employment relationship. Although independent contractors perform work for employers, they are under the control of their employer, not the employer where they temporarily work. An employer can cut ties with an independent contractor, but the end of the working relationship does not constitute termination.
If an independent contractor has a legal beef with an employer, the disagreement usually involves a breach of contract.
Most Employees Work on an At-Will Agreement
If you ever have gone through orientation (onboarding) with an employer, part of the session involved reviewing the employee handbook. Near the front of the manual reads a section that discusses an employment arrangement called “at-will.” An at-will employment arrangement means the employee can leave at any time for any reason and the employer can fire the employee at any time, but for a legally sound reason.
Employment in California is considered to be at-will. However, an employment contract signed by an employer and an employee nullifies an at-will employment arrangement. Employment contracts clearly define the conditions that allow an employer to terminate a worker.
The Fine Line Between Good Reason and Wrongful Termination
Some employers take advantage of at-will employment arrangements by letting an employee go for what appears to be a legally valid reason. After digging deeper into an employer’s motive, the fired worker might discover the employer concealed an illegal act of termination by claiming a valid reason for firing the worker.
For example, a manager might not like how a worker responded to a project deadline and on that particular day, the manager decided to make an example out of the employee by filing termination paperwork with the human resources department. The terminated employee received the document that described why the manager fired the employee. However, the worker eventually finds out the manager did not like the employee’s political affiliation, which became the underlying reason for dismissing the employee.
Just because California is an at-will state does not mean workers have to walk away from termination without questioning it. Even the slightest hint of wrongful termination should motivate you to contact an experienced employment attorney who handles wrongful termination cases.
Illegal Reasons for Firing an Employee
Although employers do not have to provide a reason for firing an employee, they cannot break California employment laws when terminating workers.
Here are the common unlawful reasons employers fire employees:
- Discriminating against race, gender, disability, religion, or any other type of protected criteria
- Political beliefs and affiliations
- Employee requested legally entitled time off
- Retaliation for an employee reporting a violation of a state or federal law
- Not following public policy
The easiest way to define wrongful termination is an employer can fire an at-will employee for any legal reason, but the employer cannot terminate an employment relationship with a worker by using an illegal reason.
The Role of Employment Contracts
Some employees work on a contractual basis that limits an employer’s ability to terminate an employee. Within the contract, there should be a section that describes the conditions when an employer can fire an employee. If an employer does not follow the conditions when terminating the employee, then the employee might have enough evidence to file a wrongful termination lawsuit.
The other side of the legal coin is an employer can fire an employee working on a contractual basis when the employee willfully violates a contractually defined job duty. Employers can also fire contracted employees that are incapable of completing employment responsibilities.
If you think that your former employer wrongfully terminated you, schedule a free case evaluation with a California employment lawyer to determine how to proceed with your case.