In California, unless an employee signs an employment contract for a specific duration, they are usually considered to be employed at-will. Generally, employers can fire at-will employees at any time for almost any reason, or no reason at all. However, there are certain protections for employees that if violated can give rise to a wrongful termination claim.

Wrongful Termination Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations represents a time limit imposed by the law to bring a specific legal claim. If a claim is not filed within the time allowed by the statute of limitations, case will likely be dismissed unless there are serious outside factors. In California, the statute of limitations for wrongful termination varies depending on the type of lawsuit that is filed:

  • Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy: California state law requires the suit be filed within 2 years of the firing.
  • Wrongful Termination because of Discrimination or Harassment: Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), this type of claim should be brought first to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) within 1 year of the termination. If DFEH fails to resolve the claim or issues a right to sue notice, a claim can be filed in state court for up to 90 days after DFEH makes its ruling.
  • Wrongful Termination as a Breach of Contract: California state law requires suits concerning written contracts to be filed within 4 years of the breach while oral or implied contract suits must be filed within 2 years of the breach.

Common Law Examples of Wrongful Termination

The following represent some common law examples of actionable wrongful termination claims in the state of California:

  • Violating Public Policy:
    • Terminating employment because an employee refused to comply with an order to violate antitrust laws
    • Terminating employment in retaliation for an employee disclosing a violation of state or federal regulations (known as the “whistleblower” protection).
    • Terminating an employee for supporting a coworker’s sexual harassment claim
  • Discrimination or Harassment:
    • Employers may not terminate employment for race, gender, age, religion, disability, or other protected status.
    • Employers may not terminate employment for objecting to sexual harassment.
  • Wrongful Termination as a Breach of Contract:
    • Employee contract provides for 6 months’ notice before firing but only receives 3 months’ notice
    • Employee contract provides that employee may only be fired “for cause” but they are terminated for no reason.

First Steps in a Wrongful Termination Case

If pursuing a wrongful termination action for discrimination, harassment, and/or retaliation; you must first file a pre-complaint inquiry with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. There are two possible approaches in filing the initial claim with DFEH:

  1. Request DFEH to investigate and resolve the wrongful termination claim; or 
  2. Request a “right-to-sue” notice, which permits the claim to be taken court. Requests forms can be filled out and filed on the DFEH website.

If pursuing a wrongful termination action for breach of contract or violation of public policy, a complaint stating the allegations must be filed in an appropriate state court within the required statute of limitations. After the complaint is filed, all adverse parties must be provided service of process according to the California Rules of Civil Procedure.

How to Prove Wrongful Termination

Each type of wrongful termination case has its own set of factors that must be proven:

  • Public Policy
    • An employment relationship existed
    • Employment was terminated or constructively terminated
    • Employer terminated the employee for one of the four protected reasons:
    • Refusing to violate a statute;
    • Performing a statutory obligation;
    • Exercising a constitutional or statutory right or privilege; or
    • Reporting a statutory violation for the public’s benefit.
  • Discrimination
    • An employment relationship existed
    • Employment was terminated by employer
    • Employee’s protected status is involved
    • Discrimination was a motivating factor
  • Harassment
    • An employment relationship existed
    • Employment was terminated or constructively terminated by the employer
    • The motivating factor for termination was employee’s objection to harassment
  • Breach of Contract
    • An employment relationship existed
    • Employment was terminated or constructively terminated by employer
    • Employment was terminated in violation of employment contract, written company policy, or labor union provisions.

Where Can You Find the Right Lawyer for Your Wrongful Termination Claim?

Wrongful termination claims are difficult to navigate and the success of the claim can depend on if the right steps were taken. An California employment lawyer can make sure that you file the correct paperwork, find the evidence you need, and (if needed) represent you in a court of law. The best way for your to succeed in your wrongful termination claim is to make sure that you have the right legal help.