Under California labor law, most employees are considered "at will," which means that your boss retains the right to terminate your employment without specific cause or prior notice. The notable exceptions to this policy are public sector employees and workers in a field with strong union presence. In a nutshell, everyone who is not specifically under contract is "at will."
Unfortunately, this means that no reason at all is a perfectly legal reason to fire someone, it's not wrongful termination unless your employer violates a contract or violates the law in firing you. Wrongful termination cases are usually proved when the employer discriminates or retaliates against the terminated employee. Other exceptions to the at-will policy inlcude employees who refuse to do something illegal, or because of an employer's failure to follow company termination guidelines as described i company bylaws.
In a narrow set of cases, wrongful termination applies even when the employee wasn't strictly fired. For instance, a case where supervisors or co-workers create a work environment so hostile and discriminatory that an employee feels forced to resign. Or a case where an employer takes actions to force an older employee into retirement by giving them lots of busy work or reducing responsibilities. Wrongful termination also applies when the employer fires an employee to avoid paying a bonus, raise, or commission.
Wrongful termination cases tend to have a lot of crossover with discrimination and harassment cases; they don't happen in a vacuum. Quite often a wrongful termination culminates after a history of discrimination. Accordingly, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) governs how we treat many of these cases.
The civil rights act of 1964 outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) builds on this landmark legislation by expanding protection to a number of other protected classes. FEHA also established the department of fair housing and employment, an agency that enforces these laws.
While an at-will employee can be fired without cause at any time, the law still protects individuals who suspect their termination was motivated by prejudice. Individuals covered by this law include, but are not limited to:
Gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual employees who suspect their termination was due to prejudice regarding their sexual orientation or gender expression.
Disability discrimination in California is an unofrtunate problem that many workers have to face. Disabled persons who have been terminated or undergone a reduction in pay or duties without an attempt at accomodation. The law also protects employees who have been previously disabled or are perceived to have a disability because of their medical history or genetic indicators.
Pregnant women, or women who expect to become pregnant, cannot be barred from employment or company health benefits except under strict circumstances. As with disabled persons, pregnant women cannot be moved, transferred, or have their duties reduced without their consent or without attempting reasonable accomodations.
Marital Status. An individual's state of marriage, non-marriage, divorce or dissolution, separation, widowhood, annulment, or other marital state may not serve as a factor in hiring or firing an employee.
Terminated employees whose employers show a bias against themselves or their co-workers on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
Employees forty years of age and older who have been fired because their employer perceives that age prevents them from doing the job. Or employees who have been fired because their boss wants someone younger who will work for less money.
Employees with military or veteran status. Military and veteran status means a member or veteran of the United States Armed Forces, United States Armed Forces Reserve, the United States National Guard, and the California National Guard.
Employees who have faced firing, harassment, or discrimination on account of their particular religious creed. "Religious Creed" includes all aspects of religious belief, observance, and practice, including religious dress and grooming practices.
Employees terminated for a real or perceived medical condition, or for genetic information that indicates an illness or condition.
Any employment agreement is a kind of contract itself, even if you're not under a specific contract with your employer. Furthermore, if your job isn't covered by a collective bargaining agreement or specific terms of employment then you can still be considrered under a kind of contract when it comes to wrongful termination.
At-will employment, although, not a "contract" in the general sense, is still a legal contract between employer and employed. Unless an employer makes it clear during the hiring process, training, or in employee handbooks that the terms of employment are specifically at-will, then the case can still be made that certain employees are under contract, therefore a termination not complying with the contract will be in breach of it.
Implied contracts can include written or verbal agreements between employer and employee, promises of a promotion or raise, handshakes, etc. If, for instance, an employer outlines a clear protocol for the discipline and termination of employees and publishes it in the employee handbook, then an employee whose termination goes against that protocol may have been wrongfully terminated.
An employer who commits an act of bad faith in firing one of their employees may also be liable for wrongful termination. For example, a boss who fires their high performing employee to avoid paying out a bonus. Although the employee is at-will, the employer was acting in bad faith if it can be proven that they terminateed the employee to avoid paying out the bonus.
Cases of retaliation may also fall under bad faith dealing if the employer asks an employee to do something illegal, and then fires the employee for refusing to do so. This is a breach of the good faith expectation in any employment contract that employers won't require their employees to break the law.
Click here for more information about at-will employment
Definitions for protected categories: CA codes 12925–12928
Unlawful employment discrimination: CA codes 12940–12951