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Like most U.S. states, California does not have “good cause” termination requirements for employers. What does that mean? In California and every state but Montana, employers do not need to have a good cause or, in other words, a valid reason to fire someone. California, instead, utilizes the “at-will” system. Under the at-will employment system, employers can fire anyone at any time for no reason.

However, there are some exceptions to at-will termination in California. For example, an employer cannot fire you for a reason that breaches a contract, violates your rights under employment laws, or goes against our state’s public policy. 

If you believe you experienced wrongful termination, contact our San Diego employment attorneys at Mara Law Firm as soon as possible.

“At-Will” Benefits to Employees

The “at-will” employment standard, however, exists with some benefits to employees, although they may not outweigh the benefits to employers. One benefit for employees under the “at-will” employment system is that, by law, employees do not need to give any notice before quitting. It is considered good manners to give two weeks’ notice, but the law does not require that in any way. 

The degree to which this truly benefits employees is questionable, though, since most employees who exercise their at-will employment rights will not automatically get a positive reference from that employer in the future. Companies might react negatively to an employee who quits at will. The reality is that the at-will employment system primarily serves employers.

Employment Contracts

Although it’s somewhat rare in today’s society, some employers will offer contractual protection to employees. Employment contracts provide more job security and safeguards. Think of it like a substitute teacher versus a professor who has tenure. Employment contracts generally include a clause that says, after a probationary period, the employee can only be terminated for good cause. This protects employees, for example, in the event of a global pandemic, mortgage crisis, or similar economic downturn. 

Employees should assume their employment is at-will unless they have a written employment contract stating otherwise. Typically, employers will try to make it very clear that any certain job is at will to avoid any potential confusion.

Verbal or Implied Employment Contracts

Despite not having a signed, written employment contract, it is possible that some employees are under the impression that they are not at-will employees. In California, verbal contracts are enforceable, except where the law dictates that such contracts must be in writing (For example, by law, prenuptial agreements in California must be in writing to be valid).

Here are some common exceptions to the at-will employment system in California where it’s possible that no written contract is required:

  • If your employer has a written “disciplinary action plan” that clearly lays out a progressive approach with each write-up or warning, this can contradict an at-will employment system. Let’s say the disciplinary action plan states: on your first violation, you’ll receive a verbal warning; on your second violation, you’ll receive a written warning; on your third violation, you’ll be demoted. If you, however, get fired instead of a written warning on your second violation, this could constitute wrongful termination.
  • High-level executives like CEOs and company Vice Presidents often have written contracts, but even without them, stockholders and board members are going to expect there to be good cause for terminating that person.
  • Many union workers have collective bargaining agreements that provide numerous additional safeguards. Typically, there needs to be a “good cause” to fire someone with a union job.
  • If an employer has given verbal assurances and promises that you can not be fired without cause, this can often be enforced.
  • Certain civic employees have city ordinances and laws in place that offer additional employment protection.

Wrongful Termination

Wrongful termination is a topic that goes hand-in-hand with at-will employment. Even under an at-will employment system, employers still must have legal reasons to terminate employees. It can be difficult with an at-will employment to prove why you were fired and prove the reason was unlawful, but it’s not impossible. 

If you believe you were terminated due to unlawful employment discrimination, you may have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. Again, it’s important to note that at-will employment in California tends to favor employers here as it’s not hard to disguise a discriminatory reason for termination when no cause is required. Consult a San Diego employment lawyer to get a thorough review of your situation.

Settlements for wrongful termination lawsuits in California can be significant, depending on the circumstances. Employers who discriminate or use unfair practices must be held accountable. By reaching out to a trusted employment attorney in San Diego, you can help set important precedents that protect future workers. You have nothing to lose by contacting an attorney, as there is no charge to you for the lawyer to try your case. Your attorney only gets paid if you win your case—there are no upfront fees to you. 

Your wrongful termination case begins by filing a report with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the California Civil Rights Department. Your lawyer can identify whether it’s best to bring a claim on the state or federal level.

These are the most common grounds for a California wrongful termination case:

  • Discrimination (based on gender identity, religion, race, sexual orientation, sex, Indian caste system identity, creed, age, disability, language, immigration status, pregnancy/breastfeeding, being in the union, and more)
  • Failing to follow an employer’s order to break the law
  • Using your vacation time, family medical leave, or sick days 
  • Reporting your employer’s violations of the Fair Employment and Housing Act
  • Implied contract violations by the employer
  • Having filed a workers comp claim
  • Making hour or wage complaints
  • Reporting a workplace injury
  • Engaging in public interest acts like military service or jury duty.
  • For being a Whistleblower 

Even mass lay-offs can qualify as wrongful termination. If the employer violated the WARN Act in the event of “downsizing,” you may have a case.

It’s important to note as well that undocumented immigrants can file wrongful termination cases with the same rights as any other worker. Both state and federal laws are in place to protect undocumented workers from abuse and discrimination. In a public statement, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that they “respect the labor rights of workers, regardless of immigration status.”

Our San Diego Employment Lawyers Will Fight for You

You have rights in the workplace! Mara Law Firm is a fierce and knowledgeable San Diego employment attorney service. We handle cases from being underpaid to being discriminated against and everything in between. Contact our offices right away to see if we can help you.

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This page has been written, edited, and reviewed by a team of legal writers following our comprehensive editorial guidelines. This page was approved by attorney David Mara who has more than 20 years of legal experience in employment law.

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