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.
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.
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'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.
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:
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.