Updated on October 12th, 2023

What Is Considered Wrongful Termination in California?

Wrongful termination occurs when an employee is fired for illegal reasons. For example, an employee cannot be fired based on ethnicity, disability, race, gender, or religion.

By Brad Nakase, Attorney

Email  |  Call (888) 600-8654

Have a quick question? I answered nearly 1500 FAQs.

What is unlawful termination in California?

In California, employees are protected by various anti-discrimination and employment laws, which prohibit employers from terminating an employee based on certain protected characteristics. Wrongful termination occurs when an employer unlawfully fires an employee for reasons that violate these laws. Employees who experience illegal termination may be eligible to pursue legal remedies and seek compensation for the damages they suffered.

California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) is a key piece of legislation that safeguards employees from discriminatory practices. It prohibits employers from terminating employees based on the following protected characteristics:

  1. Age: Employers cannot fire an employee because of their age, typically 40 years or older.
  1. Sexual Orientation or Gender: Firing a worker according to their gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation is unlawful.
  1. Nationality, Ethnicity, or Color: Employers cannot discriminate against employees based on their national origin, color, or ethnicity.
  1. Mental or Physical Disability: It is illegal for employers to terminate an employee due to their physical or mental disability, as long as the employee can perform the essential job functions with reasonable accommodations.
  1. Taking Part in an Investigation Against the Employer: Employers cannot retaliate against employees for participating in official investigations, such as filing a complaint or testifying against the employer.
  1. Pregnancy: Terminating an employee because they are pregnant or taking pregnancy-related leave is unlawful.
  1. Religion or Creed: Employers must not discriminate against employees based on their religious beliefs or practices.

Wrongful termination claims usually involve actual termination by the employer. If an employee voluntarily quits their job, it usually makes legal remedies for wrongful termination unavailable. That said, there exists an important exception to this rule:

If an employer knowingly creates an unreasonable, toxic work environment with the intention of forcing an employee to leave, the principle of constructive discharge may be applicable. In such cases, even if the employee chooses to resign, they may still have certain remedies and legal rights available to them.

Constructive discharge occurs when the working conditions become so intolerable that a reasonable employee would feel compelled to resign. In these situations, the employee’s resignation is considered involuntary, and they may be eligible to pursue a wrongful termination claim as if they were actually fired.

If an employee believes they have been subjected to illegal or unlawful termination, they should seek legal advice from an experienced employment attorney in California. An attorney can help assess the circumstances of the case, guide the employee on their rights, and determine the best course of action to seek justice and compensation for any damages suffered as a result of the wrongful termination.

What constitutes wrongful termination in California?

Wrongful termination, including constructive discharge, is a serious violation of California employment law. To succeed in constructive discharge claim, an employee needs to be able to demonstrate the following elements:

  1. Knowingly and intentionally created unbearable workplace: The employee must demonstrate that the employer knowingly and intentionally created a work environment that was aggravated and intolerable. This can include situations where the employer engaged in discriminatory actions, harassment, or retaliation, making the working conditions so difficult that any reasonable employee would find them unbearable.
  2. No option but to resign: The employee must establish that the hostile, unbearable workplace left them with no reasonable option but to resign. It is not sufficient that the employment environment was unpleasant; it should be so intolerable that a reasonable employee in the same situation would feel compelled to quit.
  3. Motivated by illegal, retaliatory, or discriminatory reasons: The employee needs to show that their employer’s actions were motivated by illegal, retaliatory, or discriminatory reasons. This means proving that the constructive discharge resulted from the employer’s desire to get rid of the employee due to protected characteristics like race, gender, age, disability, or in retaliation for asserting their legal rights at work.
  4. Knowledge of intolerable conditions: Though it is not required to prove that the employer actively participated in the retaliatory actions, the employee must demonstrate that the employer knew about the intolerable conduct and allowed it to persist. If the employer knowingly allowed such conduct to occur, they can still be held legally responsible for the constructive discharge.

Proving a claim for constructive discharge is a complex process, as it requires providing substantial evidence to support each of these elements. The employee must present documentation, witness statements, and other relevant evidence to establish that the employer’s actions were illegal, retaliatory, or discriminatory and led to the intolerable working conditions that forced them to resign.

Importantly, constructive discharge claims can be challenging to navigate, and seeking the assistance of an experienced employment attorney in California is essential. A skilled attorney can help evaluate the strength of the case, gather relevant evidence, and represent the employee’s interests in seeking justice and compensation for the wrongful termination.

Does a Termination That Seems Unreasonable Qualify as Wrongful Termination?

You may have a claim for wrongful termination when an employer breaches the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, such as interference with your work, obstruction, lack of communication, deliberate inaction, or evasion.

In California, employees are hired on an at-will basis, which means that they may be fired at any time for any reason. An employer may, in fact, terminate an employee for no reason at all. Believe it or not, an employer can choose to fire an employee for using a cell phone or chewing gum. Unless an employee signed an employment contract with their employer, he or she may be fired for any reason under the sun. However, if the employment contract requires that there be a cause for termination, then the employee must be granted one. This means that if the employee is fired without a reason given, he or she may file a wrongful termination claim.

It should also be noted that federal and state employment laws, such as discrimination laws, apply even in at-will states. An employee who is fired for an unlawful reason such as discrimination can sue their employer for wrongful termination.

Can an Employee Be Fired for Talking About Political Preferences?

Federal law does not protect employees from political discrimination at work. In California, an employee is free to express their political opinions in the workplace. However, this freedom is only preserved in California, Connecticut, South Carolina, and Louisiana. There are laws in these four states that protect an employee’s right to express his or her political views in the workplace.

Other states also have certain laws that protect a citizen’s right to attend political rallies or to support politicians. However, if an employee in one of these states is terminated for a political reason, he or she should speak with an employment lawyer to see if their case qualifies as wrongful termination.

Can an Employee Prove That They Were Fired in Retaliation?

To prove retaliation, you must show that you were fired because of your complaint or report.  It is possible for an employee to prove that he or she was terminated in retaliation for reporting an illegal practice at their workplace. In fact, federal laws protect whistleblowers from retaliation. Similarly, several states have laws protecting whistleblowers who report their employer’s unlawful actions. Employers are not allowed to punish or terminate employees who report wrongdoing or unlawful activities.

Have a quick question? We answered nearly 2000 FAQs.

See all blogs: Business | Corporate | Employment Law

Most recent blogs:

How to call in sick to work?

When calling in sick to work, be direct and concise, stating your inability to come in due to illness. Inform your supervisor or HR the nature of your illness and when you expect to return.

Equal Pay Act: What is it?

The Equal Pay Act an employers from paying their workers less than employees of the opposite sex for similar or identical work.

Exotic Dancer License & Stripper License

It is unlawful to work as an adult entertainer without a stripper license, called a "adult entertainment permit. Therefore, knowing how to get your stripping license is necessary to work in a adult club.

Strippers Minimum Wage in California

Strippers in California must earn a minimum wage of $15.50 per hour or higher, depending on the city's minimum wage where they work.

What Is A Hostile Work Environment?

The law defines an unlawful hostile work environment to mean when a superior or coworker communication or behavior that is offensive, intimating, or discriminate on the basis of gender, religion, race, ethnicity, etc.

Can you take unpaid time off in California?

There is no legal requirement in California that an employer provide its employees with either paid or unpaid vacation time. However, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives eligible employees the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year.

DFEH Right to Sue

To file a lawsuit for discrimination, you must file a complaint with DFEH and obtain a Right-to-Sue notice.

Is It Illegal To Not Pay Overtime?

Yes, it is illegal for employer to not pay overtime because California law requires that employers pay overtime, whether authorized or not.

What Is Rate Pay Meaning?

The meaning of pay rate is the average hourly rate an employee is paid calculated by dividing the total pay for employment in a work week by the total number of hours actually worked.

California Break Laws

Under California law, non-exempt workers are entitled to two paid 10-minute rest breaks and one unpaid meal break during their eight-hour shift. 

Not Getting Paid for Work I Have Done

Workers who have not been paid for work have the right to file a claim with the federal and state Department of Labor for unpaid wages.

California Overtime Law

Under California overtime law, an employee who works over eight hours a day or over forty hours per week is entitled to overtime pay at one and one-half times the regular rate of pay.

Who is exempt from overtime pay?

As of 2023, to be exempt from overtime pay, any employees who are paid at least $62,400 per year and work are primarily professional, executive, creative, managerial, or intellectual and require the exercise of independent judgment.

Can Previous Employers Talk Bad About You?

There are no state or federal laws prohibiting what a previous employer can or cannot say about a former employee. However, previous employers are not permitted to make up lies to damage your reputation and make it difficult for you to get another job.

Can An Employer Cut Your Pay as Punishment?

Employers cannot cut hours to retaliate against employees. Cutting the hours of an employee should never be used as discipline or in an attempt to make an employee quit. 

California Random Drug Testing Law

Random drug testing is not permitted in California, and employers must give their employees notice before a drug test is given.

What happens if you get caught working under the table?

Generally, it is not illegal for your employer to pay you in cash. However, if the employer paid you under the table and did not report your earnings, you may be entitled to money damages under California Labor Code 226.

ADA Proof of Disability

An employer has no right to ask an employee to provide proof of disability unless the employee requests a reasonable accommodation and the employer does not believe disability exists.

FMLA Retaliation and Wrongful Discharge

An employer is prohibited from retaliating, interfering with, restraining, or denying an employee’s exercise of any FMLA right. If an employer wrongfully terminates an employee for FLMA taking medical leave, the worker could have a lawsuit against the employer.

Per Diem Employee Rights

A per diem employee is a worker who work on an as needed basis. A per diem employee does not have a regular schedule or shift but instead works hours as assigned.

How To File A Workplace Harassment Complaint

You can always file a harassment complaint with the EEOC about the harassment. Also, you can retain our employment law attorney to help with no upfront money from you.

Wrongful Termination Settlements

When a worker wins a wrongful termination lawsuit, the average payout amount is $9000 to $95,000, depending on how much the worker would have made during employment.

Can employer ask for proof of disability?

If a worker asks for reasonable accommodation, the employer can ask for proof of disability. However, an employer cannot ask for proof of disability if its part of a hiring decision.

Contact our attorney.

Please tell us your story:

3 + 1 = ?