When is a termination of employment wrongful?
Obviously, not every involuntary termination of employment is illegal. In fact, California has a rule that every employment relationship is presumed to be "at will" unless there is an agreement that employment will be terminated only for good cause. This means that generally employers may terminate employees for any reason, except illegal reasons.
Kinds of illegal terminations
There are various reasons for employment terminations that the law says are illegal. This is also known as wrongful termination.
Breach of Contract
Although the law generally presumes employment is "at will," that presumption can be altered by a written, oral, or implied contract. If an employer makes statements and does things that imply that employment will only be terminated for good cause that may change the presumption that employment is "at will." Employees who rely on their employers' promises that they will not be fired except for good cause may be entitled to monetary damages if the employer breaks those promises.
If an employer fires an employee for a discriminatory reason the termination is wrongful under the law. If an employer terminates an employee because of the employee's protected characteristic, such as race, age, or gender, the employer may be liable for wrongful termination. Both federal and state laws exist to protect employees from being treated unfairly by their employers because of the employee's membership in a protected class.
Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy
California has created a cause of action for employees who have been terminated by their employers "in violation of public policy." This cause of action can arise when an employee engages in an activity that is supported by California public policy and the employer terminates the employee because of it. For example, if an employee complains about workplace safety violations and is terminated as a result, the employee may have been terminated in violation of public policy. Another example is an employee who refuses to participate in an illegal activity and is terminated because of the refusal. Such a termination would be in violation of California public policy.
Other Labor Code Protections
There are various other protections of employment that exist in California law. For example, an employer may not terminate an employee for engaging in lawful conduct outside of working hours that does not affect the employee. Terminating an employee for engaging in political activity is also unlawful.