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When an employee is let go for reasons that break the law, either at the state or federal level, the firing is considered wrongful termination.

Therefore, an ex-employee can sue for wrongful termination if they can prove that their former employer did something unlawful by letting them go.

Given that most employees are hired “at will,” this is not always simple to do. By law, you can leave your job for any reason, or you can be fired as well, at any time, provided it’s legal.

As long as they don’t break the law, employers have the authority to terminate an employee’s employment. 

When Terminating an Employee Becomes Illegal

Termination becomes unlawful if the following situations apply.

Contract Breaches

Some workers are safeguarded from dismissal by provisions in their employment contracts. The employee can be terminated only for “good cause,” which is further defined in such contracts.

In these cases, the employer’s stated reason for dismissing the employee must fall within the parameters established under the agreement. The employee may claim breach of contract if the stated cause for termination is not covered.

Breaches of the Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing

An “implied promise of good faith and fair dealing” is part of all valid contracts. By signing a contract, both parties promise to refrain from taking actions that deny the other party any undue advantage in carrying out the terms of the agreement.

In the workplace, this means that companies must assist their workers in fulfilling their responsibilities.

Possible violations of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing include lying, avoidance, not acting in response to the other party’s requests, or not communicating as expected. Any interference or obstruction in this respect is considered a breach.

Therefore, you may have a wrongful termination claim in California if you are dismissed under these situations.

Sexual Harassment and Retaliation

Sexual harassment in the workplace is prohibited by federal law. Under California law, your employer has an obligation to provide a workplace free of sexual harassment. If they fail to do this, you have the right to file a complaint.

Reporting or complaining about sexual harassment, whether it’s aimed at you or someone else, is a protected activity under federal law. Therefore, your employer cannot let you go for making a complaint.

Retaliation, defined as “taking unfavorable actions against someone who discloses or participates in an investigation of sexual harassment,” is also illegal in the state of California.

You may have a case for wrongful termination if you are fired after testifying in a sexual harassment investigation or settlement.

Taking Family or Medical Leave and Retaliation

Neither asking for nor using family medical leave are grounds for termination from employment. If an employee or their family member uses sick time to get medical attention for an existing ailment or to take preventative measures, an employer cannot fire the employee for doing so in California.

In fact, under California law, you are presumed to have been wrongfully fired if you want to use paid sick leave and then lose your job within 30 days. The onus then shifts on the company to provide evidence that the termination was not related to the employee’s request for using their time for sick leave.

In addition, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) make it illegal for an employer to terminate your employment because you took medical or family leave.

You have the right to take up to twelve weeks of leave to care for yourself or a family member with a serious health condition if you work for an employer who is subject to one of these laws.

Again, California law presumes that a termination during FMLA leave or within 90 days after returning from FMLA leave is a wrongful dismissal and the burden of proof shifts to the employer.

Retaliation Toward Whistleblowers

It is also against the law for an employer to terminate you for “whistleblowing” or for disclosing that the company is breaking any federal, state, or municipal standards.

A case of wrongful termination might exist, for instance, if you reported a health or safety danger at work and were subsequently fired.

Wage Law Violation Complaints

Your employer also cannot dismiss you for reporting violations of wage and hour laws described in the California Labor Code.

The law covers claims of disputes with respect to hourly earnings, overtime pay, and legal mandates for rest breaks and meals.

Employees have the right to file claims with the Department of Industrial Relations for unpaid pay and the right to exercise any rights guaranteed to them under the California Labor Code without fear of reprisal.

If you feel that you were not fairly reimbursed or paid, or that you did not receive fair treatment with respect to rest breaks or meals, you should speak to an attorney right away.

Discrimination During Pregnancy

Unlawful terminations also include those that result from a worker’s pregnancy. Employers in California are prohibited from terminating an employee because of an employee’s pregnancy, pregnancy-related complications, or the employee’s request for reasonable accommodation of those complications or requests. 

These rights fall under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Therefore, it is illegal to treat you differently because of your pregnancy. Therefore, you are in your right to file a complaint if you ask for and are denied leave or other employment concessions connected to your pregnancy.

Discrimination Against Protected Classes

Companies with five or more employees in California are not allowed to discriminate against protected classes under the state’s civil rights statute.

A “protected class” refers to a group of people who share certain traits. Therefore, you may have a case for wrongful termination if you were let go because of your membership in a lawfully protected group.

California’s Protected Classes

Protected classes are identified in California as race, national origin, ancestry, religion, age (over 40 years old), disability, color, genetic info, marital status, sexual orientation, gender, AIDS/HIV positive status, health condition, politics, veteran or military status, or citizenship. 

Victims that have reported problems with domestic violence or similar crimes also are included among the state’s protected classes.

Some cities in California may also add other groups to this list. For example, employers in San Francisco cannot discriminate against workers based on their height or weight.

Public Policy Violations

Employers who fire workers, who are exercising their rights out of a sense of public duty, may face a wrongful termination claim under California law. 

This may happen if an employee is fired for complying with public law but still is let go. For example, if an employee takes time off for jury duty, they cannot be let go for taking part in the activity.

An employee also cannot be let go if they refuse to perform illegal activities on their employer’s behalf. In this case, the breach affects the employer and employee as well as the public at large.

Other Forms of Discrimination in Wrongful Termination Claims

Other wrongful termination claims may involve discrimination under California law that impacts a worker’s rights for accommodation, victim’s rights, or community service. Some of these claims may involve getting fired for the following:

  • Fulfilling duties as a volunteer firefighter
  • Receiving accommodations as a victim of a crime
  • Requesting privacy for breastfeeding, or a lactation room

Contact Mara Law Today If You’ve Been Wrongfully Fired 

You have it in your right to file a claim if you believe you were wrongfully let go from your job in California. To discuss your case, contact Mara Law to schedule a consultation today.

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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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