What Is Wrongful Termination?
Wrongful termination has a specific meaning to employment lawyers. It refers to a situation in which an employee was fired in a way that violates any law or public policy, such as being fired for complaining of illegal activity or refusing to participate in activity that he or she believes to be illegal. The termination is "wrongful" if it violates an important public policy embodied in either state or federal laws or the California Constitution. For example, if I complained about discriminatory hiring practices by my employer and then was fired, my termination violated laws and public policy against discrimination and retaliation embodied in the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA, called Fee-Ha). Because my termination violated those laws or policies, it was "wrongful."
Remember, Wrongful Does Not Just Mean "Wrong"
Wrongful termination does not mean that the termination was simply unfair. For example, if I were fired because my boss didn't like my hair or clothes (yes, it does happen), people will agree that the reason you were given was unfair, and that it seems "wrong" to fire someone over things so trivial. However, in order to have a claim for "wrongful termination," there are specific standards that have to be met that go beyond the "unfairness" or wrongness of the situation.
You may have a wrongful termination claim if you were terminated after:
- you engaged in protected activity by complaining about what you believed to be discrimination or harassment in the workplace.
- you refused to engage in activity that you reasonably believed to be illegal (even if you were mistaken and the activity was not, in fact, illegal);
- you engaged in a legally protected activity, like serving on jury duty or seeking payment of unpaid wages under the Labor Code;
- or, if you were terminated because of a protected characteristic, such as your age, gender, race, or pregnancy status.
Common Questions About Wrongful Termination
What If I Was An At-Will Employee When I Was Fired?
Most employees are employed at will. This means that either party can end the relationship at any time for any reason, including an unfair or silly reason or even no reason at all. However, even at-will employees are protected from discrimination, retaliation, and harassment by California and federal law. No employer may fire or harass an employee because of her race, sex, religion, age, etc., or retaliate against her because she made a complaint of such discrimination or harassment, even if that employee was employed at will.
What if I quit? (I wasn't "terminated")
It is still possible to sue for wrongful "termination" even if you quit. If your employer made your job so miserable that a reasonable person would have quit, then you have been "constructively discharged" (forced to quit), and you can still sue for wrongful termination.
What If I complained to my manager about unethical things being done at work, but I didn't complain in writing or go to HR?
In order for your complaint to be considered "protected activity," it does NOT need to be in writing or provided to a specific staff person, so long as you alerted a manager to your concerns.
I complained about what I thought was discrimination at work, but my employer told me I was wrong, and then fired me. Do I still have a case?
Yes, as long as you complained under the reasonable and good-faith belief that unlawful activity was occurring, you are protected from termination (solely on the basis of that complaint), even if it turns out that what you complained about does not constitute illegal activity.
What if I witnessed unlawful conduct at work but I never complained about it. Can I still sue for wrongful termination?
It's going to be tough. The argument we're making in bringing a wrongful termination claim is that the employer unlawfully retaliated against you in a way that violates public policy. This means that we have to show that they terminated you because you complained about sexual harassment (for example) occurring in the workplace. If there is no evidence that any such complaints were made, it is unlikely that we'll be able to show a "causal connection" between the decision to fire you and the complaints. To say this another way, we must show that your complaint caused them to fire you. With no evidence of a complaint being made, we can't do that. NOTE, however, that this does NOT mean that all complaints must be in writing or even use special legal words in order to count as a complaint. For example, you do not need to say "I believe Mr. ___ is sexually harassing an employee." You just have to give enough specific information about what you're witnessing to provide the employer with a reasonable sense of what you are complaining about.