What is wrongful termination?
Wrongful termination happens when your employer fires you for any illegal reason. That illegal motive could be employment discrimination, employer harassment, retaliation, your membership in a protected class of employees, or your participation in a protected activity.
A protected class is a group of people with special protections under the law. Protected classes include:
- National Origin
- Sexual Orientation
- Medical Condition
- Military or Marital Status
A protected activity is an action an employee may take without danger of being lawfully fired for it. Protected activities include:
- Complaining about overtime pay, unpaid wages, unsafe working conditions, or illegal actions by your employer
- Obeying the law
- Reporting a violation of the law
- Exercising a legal or constitutional right
However, there are also times when an employee feels they have been wrongfully terminated, but the employer has not in fact violated employment laws.
To know the difference in your particular situation, it is important to seek the advice of a wrongful termination attorney and have your case evaluated. Our law firm provides a free consultation to prospective clients.
Does my employer need to say why I was fired?
Believe it or not, your employer is not required by law to explain why you were fired.
While an explanation is usually given, employers often lie. If the real reason for your termination is not legal, your employer will usually refuse to give a reason or make one up. Typical made-up reasons are “poor performance” or “policy violation.”
If your employer invented a false reason for firing you, or if co-workers who do the same thing are not usually fired, this invented reason is called pretext. Pretext is a false reason provided by the employer to justify an unlawful termination. Here are some examples:
- Your employer refuses to explain its reason for your termination, and you just returned from a four month medical leave, we should strongly suspect the termination was due to your physical or mental disability.
- You were fired shortly after your pregnancy had just started to show. We can reasonably assume termination was due to your pregnancy.
- You were sexually harassed prior to being fired. Here we can infer termination was due to your refusal to consent to further harassment.
- You were fired after complaining about workplace safety, pointing out an illegal practice, or asking for your overtime pay. It is likely your termination was an act of retaliation by your employer.
When your employer does give a reason for your termination, it’s helpful if you already know or suspect the real reason. However, if the real reason is not obvious to you, a wrongful termination lawyer can help you uncover the truth.
During your free consultation, we can usually determine whether or not an illegal reason factored into your termination. After listening to your story, we will ask a series of questions to identify events or circumstances during the last few months of your employment which may have provoked your employer to terminate you.
Oftentimes, employers fire an employee for reasons unclear to the employee, but very well-known to employment lawyers. One example is employees who take intermittent FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) leave. While employers are required by law to provide FMLA leave, it is often very inconvenient for them to do so. Because they cannot legally tell the employee that FMLA leave was the reason for termination, employers often come up with a false reason that’s not illegal — in other words, a pretext.
If you feel your employer may have used a pretext for firing you, take the first step toward getting the compensation you deserve by contacting a wrongful termination lawyer at Wrongful Termination Law Group today.
What is at-will employment in California?
Employment in California is at-will, which means that your employer can fire you at any time, for any reason, as long as the reason is not illegal. It also allows you to quit at any time, and for any reason, without needing to explain why.
At-will employees are often surprised to learn that at-will employment gives employers freedom to fire employees they feel are underperforming, or to fire staff when an economic downturn forces the company to downsize.
Just as consumers have the right to select and return purchases, at-will employment grants similar rights to employers regarding the hiring and firing of employees.
Exceptions to at-will employment arise when you:
- Have a union membership
- Are a government worker
- Have an employment contract specifying the duration of your employment (as with many professional athletes, for example)
Naturally, the at-will rule does not allow employers to fire employees for reasons that are illegal. If you suspect your firing was not legal, contact the experienced employment lawyers at Wrongful Termination Law Group for a free consultation.
Wrongful termination in violation of public policy
In California, you cannot be fired from your job for reasons that violate public policy or employment laws.
Violation of public policy means that a firing or discharge, while not technically illegal, has breached one or more fundamental public policy guidelines. In practice, this means that public policy protects employees from being fired in certain situations.
These situations commonly include:
Wrongful termination for performing a legal obligation
If you are required to perform a task by law, your employer may not terminate or otherwise discipline you for rightfully acting to obey the law.
Wrongful termination for refusing to break the law
If an employer tells you to perform a task which you know is illegal, and you refuse to do so, you cannot be fired for refusing to break the law. If you are fired for such a reason, your employee rights have been violated, and you are a victim of a wrongful discharge.
Wrongful termination for reporting a violation of a law
If you believe that your employer has violated the law, you can report the employer without fear of being fired. This includes reporting violations of health and safety regulations. All that matters is that your report was made in good faith. It does not matter if your violation report later turns out to be imprecise.
Wrongful termination for exercising a legal or constitutional right
If you have a legal right to participate in a certain type of activity (for example, political association or freedom of speech), your employer cannot terminate or otherwise discipline you for engaging in that activity.
If you are fired under such circumstances, you are likely the victim of a wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. To take the first step in your case, call Wrongful Termination Law Group for your free consultation today.
Wrongful termination in violation of employment law
Wrongful termination can also be triggered by an employer’s direct violation of state or federal employment law or regulations. These include:
- State employment discrimination law
- Federal anti-discrimination law
- Sexual harassment regulations
- Labor laws
- Collective bargaining law
- Employment contract or employee agreement
- Employment law
- Anti-retaliation employment law
Due to the complexity of the applicable laws and regulations, knowing which laws have been violated in your case can be a real challenge. If you’d like to learn more before contacting us to get started, we’ve compiled a number of resources on this site.
You can read our Frequently Asked Questions or our in-depth Articles for a deeper understanding of laws that apply to your case, your rights under those laws, and how people in your situation can seek compensation and justice.
Beyond our own website, there are a number of agencies concerned with protecting employees against employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and wrongful termination. You may want to visit one or two of the following websites for excellent background on the legal context for your case:
- California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH)
- State of California Department of Industrial Relations
- State of California Labor & Workforce Development Agency (LWDA)
- Employment Development Department (EDD) – State of California
- US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
You can also find more external employment law websites on our Links page.
Ultimately, to fully understand which laws or regulations may have been violated by your employer, to know if you have a strong case, and to take the crucial first steps to strengthen your case, there is no substitute for speaking with a wrongful termination attorney with expertise in these matters.
Wrongful Termination Law Group is an employment law firm dedicated to helping California employees who have been treated unfairly. Contact Us to schedule a free consultation today.
What to do if you think you have been wrongfully terminated
If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, be sure to keep every single document from your employer and contact an employment lawyer right away. Oftentimes, you’ll have emailed yourself documents from work, or sent written complaints to your employer from a personal email account before your termination.
Using a personal email account is helpful, because this allows you keep copies of your documents even after your employer cuts off access to your work email. These documents can often strengthen your case with critical evidence of employer wrongdoing.
You should keep as much documentation as possible, including your employment contract and employee handbook. If you take daily notes of what happens at work, email them to yourself at your personal email address.
It is usually best to schedule a consultation with an employment attorney even before you are terminated, because with the right advice, you’ll be able to properly document the facts of your case, so that the real reason for your termination becomes clear and is easier to prove.
Do I have a strong wrongful termination case?
How do you know if you have a strong case? The main factor separating a good case from a bad one is that good cases involve a protected class — like age, disability, gender, race, national origin, or sexual orientation — or an employee being retaliated against for making a protected complaint or engaging in legally protected activity.
Employers often lie about the reason for an employee’s termination. The strongest cases are those where an employee can disprove their employer’s stated reason for termination, or where the employer’s stated reason simply makes no sense. For example, it makes no sense if your employer says your position has been eliminated, but you spent the last few weeks of your job training your replacement.
With some exceptions, long-term employment usually makes for a stronger case. It usually causes more hardship to be fired from a job you’ve held for 10 years than to be fired from a job you’ve had for just a few weeks. Better cases also involve a termination, rather than a failure to hire or a failure to promote.
There are, of course, exceptions. In a pregnancy discrimination case, it’s not important how long the employee has been employed. What matters is that the employer knew about the pregnancy before deciding to fire the employee.
The same goes for sexual harassment cases. Even a one-week employee whose supervisor does something sexually offensive makes a strong sexual harassment and constructive discharge case. Constructive discharge is where the employee leaves because her supervisor does something that makes her feel sexually uncomfortable — in effect, making her continued employment depend on engaging in a sexual relationship with her boss.
So, pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment cases don’t require long-term employment to make great cases. The best cases, by far, involve any action by the employer that “shocks the conscience” — an action which is deeply cruel, callous, or unethical.
Obviously, sexual harassment shocks the conscience. Termination for taking time off to care for an injured child shocks the conscience. An employee being fired for reporting that they have to take time off for cancer treatment shocks the conscience, especially when the employee is counting on the ability to use his or her employer’s sponsored health insurance, and can no longer afford to do so.
What types of damages are awarded in wrongful termination cases?
There are several types of damages that wrongfully terminated employees are entitled to receive. The most obvious damage is lost past and future earnings. When you lose your job, one of the main things you lose is your wages. So, once you have proved you were wrongfully terminated, the compensation should include lost pay, the wages you would have received if you had not been fired.
If you still haven’t found suitable replacement employment by the time of your trial, you will also be entitled to compensation for future lost wages and future lost benefits. If you have found lower-paying replacement employment, you’d be entitled to the difference between what you used to make and what you are now making.
In addition to lost wages and benefits, you would be entitled to damages for emotional distress. This is usually the largest part of the damages in the case. In order to justify the damages, psychological records can be used to document your emotional distress.
In cases where your employer has does something extremely wrong, and that action was taken by somebody high up in the company, you may also be entitled to punitive damages. Punitive damages are not based on your actual losses, but on an amount the court feels necessary to punish the employer in a meaningful way — an amount the employer will “feel,” so they will think twice before doing it again. This can be quite high for larger employers.
In addition to past and future wages, emotional distress, and punitive damages, an employee who is wrongfully terminated is often entitled to compensation for legal fees and costs incurred during the case. The law provides for one-way fee shifting, which means the employee can be paid back for his or her legal fees, but the employer cannot be reimbursed by the employee if the employer wins the lawsuit.
To learn more about the potential damages in your case, contact a wrongful termination attorney at our Los Angeles offices for a free consultation today.
Should I look for a new job while my wrongful termination case is happening?
Yes, you should look for new employment if your case is still pending, because the law requires you to try to minimize the damages caused by your employer. In practice, this means you must keep a record of your efforts to try to find replacement employment. Things to track include:
- Job search activities, including their date and location
- Any documents created in the process (resumes, cover letters, emails, etc)
- Name, title, and phone number of any contacts made in the process (agencies, potential employers, etc)
- Titles of any jobs applied for
- Next steps or results for each other
The bottom line is that you are obligated to try to find new employment, and, even if you are unable to, you must document that you made an earnest effort. You are not required to accept a job that is significantly below your qualifications or pay rate, but you should not turn down appropriate employment offers at similar pay.
Even if you are able to find suitable new employment, if there is an illegal action, you can still be awarded the difference in your pay, plus emotional distress damages, legal fees, and sometimes, punitive damages.
For more information on your potential wrongful termination case, a free initial consultation is a good next step to take. Get the information and legal answers you need by calling (562) 630-1500 to schedule a free case evaluation with a wrongful termination lawyer today.
How do I prepare for my wrongful termination claim?
If you feel you are a victim of wrongful termination, the first and most important step is to speak with an experienced employment law attorney.
Los Angeles Wrongful Termination Lawyer Eric A. Panitz has a wealth of experience in all areas of employment law and offers an initial case evaluation completely free of charge. When working with Wrongful Termination Law Group, your case will most likely be accepted on a contingency basis, which means that you are not obligated to pay any fees unless your case is won. We do not get paid unless you do.
During your free case evaluation, we will evaluate your circumstances, and will likely be able to determine whether your employer violated your rights in the course of your termination or resignation.
For our law firm to perform a full evaluation of your termination, we will ask you for any documentation you can provide to support your claim. Generally, the more documentation you are able to provide, the stronger the case we will be able to make against your employer.
We typically ask for the following documentation:
- Job description
- Employment contract
- W-2 statement
- Timecards and payroll records
- Company employee manual or company handbook
- Pre-employment screening
- Performance evaluations
- Contact information for co-workers who can support your claims
- Emails and text messages
- Records you’ve kept of what happened
The most important step you take in this process is the first one: contacting an employment law attorney. Remember, we primarily work on contingency, meaning we collect no fee unless and until you win or settle your case.