While every state in the U.S. recognizes at-will employment, the rules and requirements for employers are not uniform from one jurisdiction to the next.  Therefore, California employers must familiarize themselves with employees’ protected legal rights under at-will employment laws specific to California.  Failure to carefully comply with these laws can lead to months or years of costly litigation at the expense of the employer when an employee alleges wrongful termination.

Employee Termination and At-Will Employment

Workplace Discrimination and At-Will Employment

At-will employment seems like a simple concept, but looks can be deceiving.  This area of employment law is rife with misconceptions and misunderstandings, which, needless to say, can be financially harmful to the employer.  In order to minimize your risk of inviting a wrongful termination lawsuit, it is critical to understand the basic mechanics of at-will employment in California.

In theory, employers may terminate at-will employees for any reason.  In practice, as noted by the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, “There are exceptions to the at-will rule created by statute, the courts or public policy.”  For example, an employer’s rights under at-will employment do not supersede Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which famously protects against workplace discrimination – including wrongful termination or demotion – on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, or religion.  Other examples of protected employee classes include:

  • Employees with disabilities, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Employees aged 40 or older, under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).
  • Employees who are pregnant, under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).

However, it isn’t just the class to which an employee belongs that matters.  Employers can also find themselves targeted by wrongful termination lawsuits for taking retaliatory actions (such as termination, demotion, sexual harassment, or verbal harassment) against an employee who:

  • “Refus[es] to carry out an activity that violates the law.”
  • “Participat[es] in union activity.”
  • Becomes a whistleblower or reports a safety violation to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).

California Employment Law and Labor Code Violations

In addition to federal acts like the ADA, PDA, and ADEA, California employees are further protected by state laws.  For example, FEHA (the Fair Employment and Housing Act) bolsters Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by providing protection against discrimination, harassment, and retaliation (such as termination) based on “race, color, religion, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, ancestry, mental and physical disability, medical condition, age, pregnancy, denial of medical and family care leave, or pregnancy disability leave.”  To provide another example, the CFRA (California Family Rights Act), which applies to companies with 50 employees or more, protects employees from being terminated for taking leave to attend to an illness or care for a child or family member.

In addition to refraining from workplace discrimination or the other violations described above, employers must also take care to appropriately compensate at-will employees upon termination.  In accordance with Cal. Lab. Code § 2922, “An employment, having no specified term, may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other.”  This is important in the context of Cal. Lab. Code § 2926, which provides that “an employee who is not employed for a specified term [i.e. an at-will employee] and who is dismissed by his employer is entitled to compensation for services rendered up to the time of such dismissal.”  Cal. Lab. Code § 2927 further extends this right to compensation to employees who quit.

The employment attorneys of Bellatrix PC are well-versed in the nuances of California’s labor laws and are prepared to represent limited liability companies, partnerships, and corporations.  Our knowledgeable legal team brings years of experience to every matter we handle, no matter how minor or complex.  We focus our practice on balancing aggressive client advocacy with strict legal compliance so that you can feel confident your financial interests are protected at every stage of the mediation, arbitration, or litigation process.  We have represented employers and business owners in numerous cases involving at-will employment disputes, and have a track record of obtaining favorable outcomes for our clients.

If you’re worried about your company’s current employment policies, we can perform a Business Risk Review to strengthen vulnerable areas in your contracts.  If an employee has already threatened you with a lawsuit, the time to seek legal representation is now.  To set up a confidential case evaluation, call the experienced employment law attorneys of Bellatrix PC right away at (800) 449-8992.

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