7 Reasons Employees Sue for Wrongful Termination in California

Employees wins millions of dollars in wrongful termination lawsuits against their employers.

Brad Nakase, Attorney

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California is a unique and beautiful place, full of employees in a wide range of diverse fields. Many California employees enjoy interesting and dynamic livelihoods, but all employment relationships end at some point. People move on to other positions, switch careers, or simply know that their employer is not the right one for them. In California, when an individual desires to, they can quit their job at any point. However, this works both ways because employers are also able to terminate employees ostensibly at any time and for any reason. This may seem like a difficult policy, yet it is fair, and it is more complex than it may seem. This is because many people who have been laid off in California think they are not afforded legal protections in most cases. However, this is not true.

If an employee has been dismissed for the reason that is deemed illegal in California, then they may be able to sue their former employer for wrongful termination. Here, we will explore these reasons and take a look at the laws surrounding them in order to present to employees and employers all options available. For employees or employers that feel violated or mistreated as a result of wrongful termination, our business lawyers and corporate attorneys at Nakase Wade can provide excellent support and counsel in California. Contact us today for all of your questions about wrongful termination.

Employees in California: Defined

It is essential to first establish what defines a California employee in order to discuss wrongful termination. A wrongful termination claim can only be pursued by an employee of a certain company, as opposed to an independent contractor. This is because the focus here is the relationship between the employer and the employee. But how are “employees” defined under California law?

Typically, workers are considered employees when:

  1. Their employer pays their worker’s compensation insurance, social security, and payroll taxes.
  2. They provide a service to the employer, and the employer, in exchange, controls their working conditions, wages, and hours.

Especially within our growing gig economy, and particularly in California, independent contracts have become quite prevalent in the workforce. These workers provide a designated service for a company, but they are not known to be employees because they work for multiple companies at the same time, and therefore their employers simply have less control over them. In California, the ABC test tells us whether a worker should be designated as an independent contractor. There are specific requirements that determine whether a worker can be designated an independent contractor.

  1. The worker must engage in an independent and already established business, occupation, or trade. This work should be of the same sort as the work performed.
  2.  The employee needs to perform work outside the hirer’s usual daily operations.
  3.  The employee must be free from the control of the employer, and their overall direction, in relation to the work that is performed.

These three conditions will tell us whether a worker is an independent contractor. Wrongful termination laws only apply to employees and not independent contracts. This is an important distinction to make. If an individual is an independent contractor, they may be able to file a claim or lawsuit against a business for a violation of laws or personal rights. However, when an employer ends their professional relationship with an independent contractor, it does not officially qualify as termination in the context we are looking into.

If you are an independent contractor and have questions about your legal rights, get in touch with one of our licensed attorneys. We can advise you regarding the best way to negotiate your employment concerns.

Termination of Employees: Reasons Deemed Unlawful

Most California employees are considered to work “at will.” This means they can leave their positions at any time, regardless of whether they provide notice. It also implies that California employers have the ability to lay off their employees at any time, even if no transgression has occurred. Employees, then, can be fired for seemingly arbitrary reasons, but the law cannot be broken. So, if, for example, your supervisor has a personal issue and fires you for no reason at all, unfortunately, this is lawful. However, if the supervisor uses demeaning and racist language when firing you and has a reputation of sexism or racism, then depending on the factors involved, there might be a claim to be made against illegal discrimination in the workplace. In the latter case, the employee may be able to sue for wrongful termination (this is just a hypothetical, of course, and the lawyers involved would need to look at all the facts).

Typical reasons that are cited for unlawful or wrongful termination can be caused by:

  1. Discrimination
  2. Violation of Public Policy
  3. Whistleblowing or Reporting Violations Deemed Illegal
  4. Exercising Employee Rights (Sick Leave, Maternity Leave, etc.)
  5. Violating terms of Employment Contracts (written or oral)

Reason 1: An employee can sue for wrongful termination when termination was based on discrimination.

Generally, wrongful dismissal that has its roots in discriminatory behavior is very common. Based on California’s FEHA, no employer is ever allowed to terminate an employee based on these specific characteristics:

  1. Genetic information
  2. Marital status
  3. Religion
  4. Race, Ancestry, Color, National Origin
  5. Sex (Childbirth, Pregnancy, Related Medical Issues)
  6. Physical or Mental Disability
  7. Marital Status
  8. Sexual Orientation
  9. Age
  10. Military or Veteran Status
  11. Political Affiliations or Actions
  12. Being a Victim of Domestic Violence, Stalking, Assault, or Similar
  13. HIV/AIDS
  14. Medical Conditions (Various)

If an employee within the state of California believes that their firing was motivated by any of these conditions, characteristics, or choices, then they may have been a victim of illegal discrimination. There may be a case to be made for wrongful termination based on these grounds. It is important, then, for employees who feel they may be being discriminated against to document everything in the events leading up to the termination, if possible.

Employers, on the other hand, are simply not permitted to create and sustain a workplace environment that purposefully harasses, excludes, persecutes, or places any member at a specific disadvantage—especially if they fit into any of the above categories. When a worker is made to quit because she/he could not put up with a hostile work environment where a protected group was being unfairly targeted, this is called a constructive discharge. This type of case can be difficult to prove because often, the employee resigns instead of being laid off. However, courts in California recognize these unique cases as consisting of wrongful termination—sometimes—if the evidence fully supports this.

Reason 2: An employee can sue for wrongful termination when termination was based Immigration Status

When employees in California encounter discriminatory behavior that is perpetuated by their employers, it is important that they know they are protected by law. California laws protect workers when they are mistreated based solely on their immigration status. This means that it does not matter if you are a US citizen or not, as long as you are in the country legally: you are protected against workplace discrimination in the same manner.

Unauthorized immigrants in California also are able to access some protections. While employers are not technically allowed to hire undocumented immigrants, since it is against the law, they are limited from:

  1. Asking to examine any documents that are not already required by the US government
  2. Asking needless questions about an individual’s immigration status
  3. Asking to see paperwork/documentation in an abusive manner

In California, AB-263 forbids employers from retaliating against workers with immigration-related threats. Immigration status, then, cannot be used as leverage or collateral by any employer in the state.

Reason 3: An employee can sue for wrongful termination when termination was based Public Policy Violations

In California, claims regarding public policy often relate to unethical behavior or claims, but in a broader sense than retaliation claims, which we will go over next. Basically, employers cannot lay off employees if the reason for the firing violates a state or federal policy. Fundamental public policies, whether at the state or federal level, exist for a reason, and their reach extends into the employment sphere.

An example of this can be seen when a worker is fired for refusing to do something illegal, such as participate in insider trading. Or, sometimes, a worker rightfully protests the illicit or fraudulent practice of their company. Perhaps the employer asks the worker to lie to the IRS, and he/she refuses and is fired. This would be an opportunity to speak with an attorney about making a public policy claim because the employee would have been wrongfully discharged.

For “At-Will” employees, public policy claims provide an important exception. This is because the reason for termination might violate a public policy, on a federal or state level, while at the same time not technically defying an employment law. Overall, it is important to remember that not only in California but across the country, no citizen should lose their job for the just refusal to do something illegal.

Reason 4: An employee can sue for wrongful termination when termination was based Retaliation

California employers cannot terminate their employees simply for exercising their lawful rights of employment. Similarly, workers in California cannot be punished for complaining that these specific rights have been violated.

  1. Taking maternity leave
  2. Reporting illegal discrimination or harassment or filing a complaint
  3. Complaining to the employer about unlawful working conditions
  4. Reporting a health/safety issue to a government agency
  5. Reporting unlawful hour and wage practices (unpaid OT, for ex.)
  6. Asking for time off to vote/serve for jury duty
  7. Asking for or taking medical leave
  8. Filing a claim for worker’s compensation
  9. Complaining about wages yet unpaid, discussing income issues with fellow employees
  10. Asking to take lactation breaks during the workday

Reason 5: An employee can sue for wrongful termination when termination was based Criminal Conviction History

It is true that employers can perform background checks and request permission to do so on job applicants, prospective employees, and employees. However, these rights do come with limitations. Known to many as “Ban the Box,” the 2018 California Fair Chance Act ultimately prohibited employers from asking workers about their criminal records—before making an offer of employment. Under the act, after the job is offered, the employer is able to do a complete criminal background check and base their decision on this. If the applicant does indeed have a criminal history, the employer will look into the gravity of the crimes on the record, how much time has elapsed since the conviction, and any other pertinent information.

When an employer wants to conduct a criminal background check, they must complete the following tasks:

  1. Tell the worker, in writing, that they intend to terminate the employee based on the report; they must let them know this.
  2. Provide the worker with a copy of their criminal record.
  3. Record the employee or prospective employee’s written consent.
  4. Allow five business days for the employee to respond.
  5. Obtain prior written consent before conducting the check (this should be done first).

Reason 6: An employee can sue for wrongful termination when termination was based Political Affiliations, Connections, and Interests

California law forbids employers from taking hostile actions against workers based on their political activities or views. These can include:

  1. Attending rallies
  2. Campaigning for their candidate
  3. Running for office
  4. Being or becoming a member of a political party

Likewise, businesses cannot force, instruct, or attempt to coerce their employees into certain belief systems, such as adhering to company politics. They also cannot retaliate against employees who believe in opposing political ideologies. For example, if an employee supports or votes for a candidate that the employer does not approve of, they cannot threaten them or take any other action—including termination.

These days, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between a business’s “brand” and its political opinion. It is essential for employers and employees alike to remember that companies have absolutely no say in what their workers believe politically or who they endorse and vote for.

Reason 7: An employee can sue for wrongful termination when termination was based Breach of Employment Contract

There are exceptions to “at-will” employment, and one of these occurs when a worker can prove that they have already entered into a contract with an employer. This can occur in writing or even verbally. Essentially, if a worker received a contract when their position began, it probably stipulated the length of time of employment. This can limit the employer’s ability to fire an employee without a significant reason. Thus, if the employer fires the individual anyway and therefore violates these terms, their actions may be interpreted as wrongful termination.

A contract can be verbal as long as it is fully comprehended by both parties involved. For example, a supervisor could tell an employee that they “will not be fired if they do a good job” and perhaps quantify what is meant by a good job. Understandably, oral contracts are difficult to certify and prove, so we always recommend written documentation at all times—for employees and employers.

There are other legal ways to define contracts as well. Wrongful termination can be based on an “implied contract.” What is an implied contract? An employer could include in the employee handbook a list of reasons why workers could be fired.

Filing a Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

If a current or former employee thinks they have been unfairly terminated, it is essential that they contact an experienced wrongful termination attorney immediately. It is recommended that the individual get together all written documents relevant to the case (these may include handbooks, emails, performance reviews, contracts, letters, and even memos and records of pertinent conversations).

Once the individual brings these to a lawyer, the lawyer will help figure out the appropriate strategy by identifying the strongest and weakest claims, the main position of the claim and its veracity, and the overall best angle for the wrongful termination lawsuit.

It is very important to proceed with haste because deadlines to file wrongful termination lawsuits can be brief, making things challenging. In California, one usually has 2-3 years after being terminated, but we advise that you get moving well before that.

Expected Damages – Wrongful Termination Lawsuits

When a case features strong evidence, it may be possible to recover many different types of damages under California law. This depends, however, on certain conditions, including:

  1. Punitive Damages 1: Usually only awarded in cases where the employer is guilty of malice, fraud, or oppression, these damages can deter a defendant from committing similar acts in the future.
  2. Punitive Damages 2: These are meant to punish defendants for additional damages not necessarily related to already registered economic losses.
  3. Legal Fees: These can include witness fees, court costs, and attorney fees. Sometimes, employers need to cover these costs.
  4. Reinstatement: This occurs when a wrongfully terminated worker can get their job back.
  5. Compensatory Damages: These include benefits, lost pay, back pay, and anything else that the worker was expected to earn if they were not wrongfully laid off. Sometimes, this includes mental or emotional components, such as anxiety, humiliation, or grief.

Hire A Wrongful Dismissal Attorney—Contact Nakase Law Firm in California

The overall point here in taking a close look at wrongful discharge in California is that these cases are complex. When individuals are terminated for the wrong reasons, situations grow complicated quickly. California law protects workers from unfair and wrongful termination, but it is essential to have an attorney on your side who is familiar with these laws and who will defend your rights as a worker and individual. At Nakase Law Firm, we will pursue your case until the rightful damages you are seeking are rewarded. No one should be dismissed from their job for wrong and illegal reasons and left without options. Contact us today for a free consultation. Our California corporate attorneys and business lawyers are ready to help you rejoin your professional field, where you belong.

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