California Wrongful Termination Laws

Find out if you have been fired illegally and if you are protected under California's employment or termination laws.

Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In California, as in other states, employees work at will. This means an employee can generally be fired at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all.

But there are some exceptions to the at-will rule. For example, if your California employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, you may have a legal claim for wrongful termination.

What If You Were Illegally Fired During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

A shocking number of Americans have lost their jobs as a result of the economic downturn stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. But what if you were fired during the pandemic? Depending on the reason you were dismissed, you might have a valid claim for wrongful termination. For instance, it would generally be illegal for your employer to fire you:

  • in retaliation after you complained about or reported unsafe working conditions, such as inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing, or cleaning
  • for refusing to work because you had a reasonable belief that you faced an immediate risk or death of serous physical harm due to unsafe working conditions
  • for refusing to violate a legal shelter-in-place order
  • for taking family or medical leave under state or federal law, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the California Family and Medical Leave Act (discussed below)
  • because you have a preexisting condition (including your age) that makes you more vulnerable to the coronavirus, or
  • because you filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits for COVID-19.

Also, if you were essentially forced to quit your job because of serious coronavirus-related safety hazards that put you at risk, you might have grounds to sue your employer for "wrongful constructive termination" in violation of public policy. In order to succeed with this argument, you would have to show that your former employer intentionally created or knowingly allowed working conditions that violated public policy (such as laws requiring a safe work environment) and were so intolerable that any reasonable person in your position would have been compelled to resign. (Learn more about wrongful termination in the context of COVID-19.)

This article covers some of the common legal grounds you might have for suing your employer in California for wrongful termination. But this is not a comprehensive list of California employment rights, which are some of the most protective of employees in the nation. To find out the full extent of any claims you might have against your employer, speak to an experienced California employment lawyer right away. To learn more about California employment law, contact the office of the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.

Discriminatory Firing

Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to fire someone based on a protected characteristic. Federal law prohibits employers from firing employees based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (if the employee is at least 40), disability, citizenship status, or genetic information. However, only certain employers must comply with these laws. For most types of discrimination, the law apply to employers with 15 or more employees. However, the prohibition against age discrimination applies to employers with 20 or more employees, and the ban against citizenship status discrimination applies to employers with only four or more employees.

California law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, gender identity or expression, religion, disability, age (40 and older), genetic information, sexual orientation, marital status, AIDS or HIV status, medical condition, military and veteran status, political activities or affiliations, or status as a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. California employers with at least five employees must comply with these anti-discrimination laws. All California employers, regardless of size, may not permit employees to be harassed on the basis of these characteristics.

These laws also make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for asserting your rights. For example, if you complain to your company's HR department that you believe you were passed over for promotion because of your age, your employer may not discipline or fire you for your complaint. Likewise, your employer cannot fire you for participating in an investigation of a discrimination complaint (no matter who made the complaint), testifying in court, or making other efforts to stop discriminatory practices.

Before filing a discrimination or retaliation lawsuit, you must file a complaint with the appropriate government agency. In California, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing enforces the state's laws prohibiting discrimination; you can file a complaint online or at the Department's offices in Elk Grove. Often times, state fair employment practices agencies will record your complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces federal antidiscrimination laws. However, you should check to make sure. If not, you may also have to file a complaint with the EEOC; you can find contact information for the nearest office at the EEOC's Field Offices page.

Breach of Employment Contract

If you have an employment contract promising you job security, you may not be an at-will employee. In California, an employment contract may be written, oral, or implied. In the first two types of contracts, your employer makes oral or written promises not to fire you for a certain period of time without good cause. In an implied contract, your employer doesn't make express promises, but acts in a way that creates a reasonable expectation that you would continue to be employed. For example, if your employee handbook says that employees won't be fired unless certain disciplinary steps are followed, that may create an implied contract that gives you certain rights before being terminated. If you have an employment contract, and your employer fires you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract.

California Wage and Hour Laws and Issues

California's minimum wage is significantly higher than the federal minimum wage. In 2020, employers with 25 or fewer employees must pay $12 per hour, while employers with 26 or more employees must pay $13 per hour. In 2021, these numbers increase to $13 and $14, respectively. Further increases are scheduled each year until 2023, when all employers in the state must pay $15 per hour.

California employees also have the right to overtime pay when they work more than eight hours in a workday, more than 40 hours in a workweek, or seven workdays in a row. Payment for overtime hours is either time-and-a-half or double time, depending on how many hours the employee has worked.

Employees in California are entitled to meal and rest breaks. Employers must provide a 30-minute unpaid meal break once an employee has worked five hours, but the employee may agree in writing to waive the meal break for shifts of six hours or less. Once an employee works ten hours in a workday, he or she is entitled to a second 30-minute unpaid meal break. However, for shifts of twelve hours or less, the employee may agree to waive the meal break if the employee took the first meal break.

Employees must also receive a paid ten-minute rest break for every four hours (or major fraction thereof) worked, as close to the middle of the four-hour work period as practicable. Employees who work less than three-and-a-half hours in a workday are not entitled to a rest break.

It is illegal for employers in California to fire, discipline, or retaliate against employees who file wage claims or otherwise assert their rights under these wage laws.

Time Off Work in California

State and federal laws give employees the right to take time off work for certain civic obligations and personal responsibilities. Employers may not discipline or fire workers for exercising these rights. In California, these rights include:

  • Military leave. Under federal law, employees have the right to take up to five years of leave to serve in the military, with the right to be reinstated when they return to work. (This law also prohibits discrimination against employees based on their military service, protects employees from discharge without good cause for up to one year after they return from military duty, and provides other protections; see Nolo's article Taking Military Leave for more information.) In California, members of the U.S. reserves, National Guard, and Naval Militia are entitled to up to 17 days of unpaid leave per year for military training, drills, encampment, naval cruises, special exercises, or similar activities. Members of the state military are entitled to up to 15 days of unpaid leave for the same purposes. Members of the California National Guard may take unlimited leave for active duty, with reinstatement when their service is through. Once they are reinstated, they may not be fired without cause for one year.
  • Jury duty. In California, employees are entitled to unpaid leave for jury service. Employers who fire or penalize employees for jury service are subject to special damages in a wrongful termination lawsuit and criminal sanctions.
  • Voting leave. Employees in California are entitled to take up to two hours of paid time off to cast their ballots. This time may be taken at the beginning or end of an employee's shift, whichever gives the employee the most time to vote and takes the least time off work. Employees are not entitled to voting leave if they have sufficient time to vote during their non-work hours.
  • Family and medical leave. California employees are protected by the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This law requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 weeks off, unpaid, every year for a serious health condition, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, to care for a new child, or to handle certain practical matters arising out of a family member's military service. Employees can take up to 26 weeks off in a single year to care for a family member who is seriously injured while serving in the military. Employees who take FMLA leave must be reinstated to the same position they previously held once their leave is over. California has its own family and medical leave law, which is similar to the FMLA. For all the details, see Nolo's article Family and Medical Leave in California.
  • New parent leave. California law requires employers with 20 to 49 employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to bond with a new child. Employers with 50 or more employees are already covered under the federal and state FMLA laws described above.
  • Pregnancy disability leave. In California, employers with 5 or more employees must provide eligible employees with up to four months off for pregnancy disability leave. This leave is in addition to any time taken off to bond with a newborn under the family and medical leave laws. For example, a California employee can take four months off for pregnancy disability and another 12 weeks off to bond with the child.
  • Military spouse leave. In California, employers with 25 or more employees must provide eligible employees with up to ten days of unpaid leave to spend time with a spouse who is on leave from active military deployment.
  • Other protected leaves. California law provides a host of other protected leaves, including time off for participation in a child's school or daycare activities, domestic violence leave, crime victim leave, bone marrow and organ donor leave, alcohol and drug rehabilitation leave, and more. Covered employers may not fire employees because they take leave under these laws.

Other State Employment Claims

  • Workers' compensation. Employers may not fire an employee for filing a workers' compensation claim or testifying in a coworker's workers' comp case.
  • Workplace safety. Employees cannot be fired for making safety complaints with a government agency or for refusing to perform work that would violate state safety standards.
  • Whistleblowing. Employers cannot retaliate against an employee who discloses a violation of the law to government agencies, as long as the employee had reasonable cause to believe that a federal, state, or local law was being violated. Likewise, an employee cannot be retaliated against for refusing to participate in illegal activity.
  • Off-duty conduct. In California, employees have the right to engage in lawful activities during their non-work hours, away from the employer's premises, and they cannot be fired for doing so. For example, an employer cannot fire an employee for participating in a lawful political protest, engaging in legal hobbies, or other similar activities.
  • Disclosure of information. An employer cannot fire an employee for disclosing his or her wages or working conditions to others, nor can an employer fire an employee for refusing to disclose his or her medical information.

    What to Do Next

    If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a California employment lawyer as soon as possible. A lawyer can help you sort through the facts and assess the strength of your claims. A lawyer can also inform you of other state or local claims that you may have in addition to those listed above. Whether you want to try to get your job back, negotiate a severance package, or sue your employer in court, a lawyer can walk you through your options and help you decide on how best to proceed.

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