Wrongful termination occurs when an employee is terminated from their employment for illegal reasons. Importantly, employees in most states are considered to be at-will employees. This means that either the employer or the employee may terminate the employment at any time, for any reason, including for no reason at all. The one caveat is that the reason for the termination must not be illegal.
A few specific examples of illegal reasons for terminating an employee, which would be considered to be wrongful or unfair termination include:
- Discrimination: Employment discrimination occurs when an employee is terminated or treated differently because they belong to a protected class. Protected classes include race or color, national origin, sex or gender, age, religion, disability, pregnancy, and sexual orientation;
- Retaliation: If an employee is terminated in retaliation to their filing a complaint against their employer, that is considered wrongful termination. Filing complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a protected action, and your employer cannot legally terminate your employment for doing so.
- Family or Medical Leave: The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires certain employers to provide necessary unpaid leave to their employees so they may care for sick family members, care for newborn children, etc. If an employer fires an employee who takes time off for reasons covered by the FMLA, it could be considered illegal.
In California specifically, unless an employee signs an employment contract that details a specific duration of employment, they are considered to be at-will employees. As such, their employer may terminate their employment at any time, for any reason, so long as the reason is not illegal. In addition to the aforementioned examples of wrongful or illegal termination, California recognizes the following as illegal causes for termination:
- Victim of domestic violence or stalking;
- Military or veteran status;
- Constructive termination, which occurs when working conditions are so intolerable or unsafe that the employee is forced to quit;
- AIDS/HIV status; or
- Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (“WARN”) violations. The WARN Act provides protection to employees by requiring specific employers to provide a sixty day notice of mass layoffs.
In general, most wrongful terminations are discrimination cases, which are brought under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. Another common case in California is retaliation against an employer for violating the Labor Code.
The term “statute of limitations” refers to statutes that specify the amount of time a person has to file a civil lawsuit. The term can also refer to the amount of time a prosecutor is allowed to file a criminal complaint against a defendant. The purpose of a statute of limitations is to protect defendants from untimely litigation, and to ensure that plaintiffs are exercising due diligence in pursuing valid and timely complaints. Each state has its own definition of what is considered to be a timely filing of a complaint.
In California, the statute of limitations for wrongful termination varies based upon the type of lawsuit that is filed. If a claim is not filed within the allotted time as determined by the statute of limitations, the case will likely be dismissed. However, if there are serious factors involved, an exception may be made.
Some examples of California statutes of limitations for wrongful termination include:
- Two years within the firing for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. This means two years from the date that the employee was terminated for participating in a protected activity;
- Wrongful termination because of discrimination or harassment first requires a claim be brought to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“DFEH”) within one year of the termination. If the DFEH fails to resolve the claim, or issues a right to sue notice, a claim may be filed in state court for up to ninety days once the DFEH has made their ruling; or
- Within two years of a breach of an oral or implied contract, or within four years of a breach of a written contract.
Proving wrongful termination depends on what type of wrongful termination you experienced. Each type has its own set of factors that must be proven. The most common factors that you will need to prove include that an employment relationship existed, that the employment was terminated by the employer, or that the employment was constructively terminated. Other factors that you may need to prove in specific wrongful termination cases include:
- Public Policy Cases: The employee will need to prove that the employer terminated them for one of the four protected reasons:
- Refusing to violate a statute;
- Performing a statutory obligation;
- Exercising a constitutional right; or
- Reporting a statutory violation for the public’s benefit;
- Discrimination Cases: The employee will need to prove that their protected status is involved. Further they will need to demonstrate that discrimination was the motivating factor in their termination, as opposed to being inconsequential to the firing;
- Harassment Cases: The employee will need to prove that the motivating factor for termination was the employee’s objection to being harassed; or
- Breach of Contract Cases: The employee will need to prove that their employment was terminated in violation of their employment contract, written company policy, or labor union provisions.
The first step in pursuing wrongful termination action for discrimination, harassment, or retaliation cases is to file a pre-complaint inquiry with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. You could request the DFEH to investigate and resolve the wrongful termination claim, or request a right to sue notice. A right to sue notice permits the claim to be taken to court. Request forms can be both filled out and filed on the DFEH’s website.
Breach of contract or violation of public policy requires filing a complaint in an appropriate state court. Within the claim you will need to state the relevant allegations, and file your complaint within California’s statute of limitations. Once the complaint has been filed, all adverse parties must be served according to the California Rules of Civil Procedure.
As can be seen, wrongful termination claims may be difficult to prove, and require many following legal steps. Additionally, you must be mindful of California’s statutes of limitations. Therefore, it would be in your best interest to consult with a skilled and knowledgeable California employment attorney in your area.
An experienced employment attorney can educate you on California’s specific employment laws and processes, and ensure that you file the correct paperwork. Additionally, they may assist in providing evidence, and represent you in court, as necessary.