California is an at-will state with regard to employment.  Unfortunately, the California laws which govern at-will employment are often misunderstood by employers and employees alike, leading to contentious disputes and even lawsuits.

In simple terms, at-will employment is employment by choice, without a contract, that may be terminated by the employer or the employee at any time.  If an employee is under contract or is a public entity employee, then the general at-will principles may not apply.

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Typically speaking, an employer may terminate an at-will employee in California for any reason, just as an at-will employee may generally quit their employment for any reason.  However, there are certain circumstances in which at-will termination can still give rise to a wrongful termination lawsuit or claim.  Whether a former employee has already filed a lawsuit against your business, or you simply wish to review vulnerable areas in your company’s current hiring and firing policies, the experienced employment law attorneys of Bellatrix PC can help.

To arrange for a private legal consultation with our business defense lawyers, call the law offices of Bellatrix PC today at (800) 449-8992.

When Can an Employee Sue for Wrongful Termination?

Wrongful termination occurs whenever someone is fired in a way that violates a fundamental public policy which has been firmly established in California.  Some common public policies which have been firmly established in California include, but are certainly not limited to, prohibitions against the following conduct:

  • Workplace discrimination.  (Employers should note that allegedly discriminatory employment practices can also give rise to race discrimination claims, sexual orientation discrimination claims, and so forth.)
  • Harassment and retaliation because of membership in a protected class, such as gender, disability, national origin or ancestry, race, or sexual orientation.
  • Terminating workers because they refuse to participate in illegal company activities.
  • Terminating workers because they formally lodge complaints regarding illegal company activities.
  • Terminating employees for complaining about their failure or another employee’s failure to be paid wages.
  • Terminating employees for complaining about hazardous workplace conditions.

Note that a simple unfair termination is not generally sufficient for an employee to prevail in a wrongful termination claim.  However, as mentioned above, there are certain situations in which an employee’s termination may lead to liability issues.  For example, liability may arise if an employee was terminated for any of the following reasons:

  • The employee complained about illegal discrimination and/or harassment.
  • The employee blew the whistle on illegal company activities.
  • The employee complained about hazardous working conditions, which may constitute an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) safety violation.
  • The employee complained about unfair wages.
  • The employee belonged to a protected class.

What to Do if Your Company is Being Sued for Discrimination or Harassment

Wrongful termination claims can have enormous legal and financial significance, because they can greatly expand the range of damages that employees can seek for workplace violations.  Nonetheless, try not to panic or despair if you find yourself faced with a lawsuit.  Not only must the employee who is suing you be able to meet the burden of proof, he or she must also provide evidence that their termination violated an established public policy and was not simply a legal, at-will termination by their employer.

It is also extremely important that your business does not conceal, alter, or eliminate any employee files or other pieces of documentation.  Keeping properly documented personnel files, tracking disciplinary actions against the employee during their employment, and documenting the legitimate reasons for an employee’s termination can aid you in defending against a claim, because it is possible that your documentation may be able to refute or disprove the employee’s allegations.

Avoiding employee-related lawsuits often comes down to having well-constructed policies and procedures in place, maintaining accurate records, and complying with company policies and state and federal anti-discrimination laws.  As the adage goes, prevention is the best medicine.  However, even the most carefully constructed workplace policies are not always effective barriers against allegations of discrimination and harassment.

If a problem does arise, our experienced attorneys will perform an in-depth investigation and analysis to determine whether the former employee’s claim has merit, and can help your business explore some of the legal strategies which may be available to you.  We represent our clients assertively and persistently in litigation matters and before regulatory agencies.  However, we also take a strategic approach to each case, weighing the advantages of aggressive litigation against alternate means of conflict resolution such as negotiation, arbitration, and mediation.  We can help you determine which sort of legal strategy is most appropriate for your unique set of circumstances.

If an employee has brought or is threatening to bring a claim against your company, or if you’d like to analyze your existing policies with a comprehensive business risk review, the attorneys of Bellatrix PC can help.  To arrange for a confidential consultation, call our law offices right away at (800) 449-8992.

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