Do you think you were Unlawfully Terminated from your Job?
At The Gutierrez Law Firm, we know that getting fired from a job is one of the most stressful experiences one can endure. Fortunately, there are laws preventing illegal terminations and legal options for compensation. If you were fired, there are many factors to consider when determining if the termination occurred for illegal reasons.
What is “At-Will” Employment?
Generally speaking, California employees are presumed to be employed “at-will.” According to Cal. Labor Code § 2922, this means that employees without contracts:
- Can be terminated for any reason or no reason
- Need no notice for termination
This does NOT mean that your employer has complete freedom to fire you. If you are an “at-will” employee, you may be fired for any reason or no reason—so long as it is not an unlawful reason (i.e. “wrongful termination.”).
What is Wrongful Termination?
Even though most employees are “at-will” employees, there are reasons for firing an employee that would violate California or federal law. For example, an employee may not be terminated from his or her employment for the following reasons:
- Exercising a legally protected right such as filing a workers compensation claim, taking family leave, using sick time, or taking meal or rest breaks.
- In retaliation for reporting a workplace violation that the employee believed to violate a local, state, or federal law.
- Performing a mandatory obligation such as serving on jury duty or in the military.
Whistleblowing or refusing to engage in illegal activity.
- Discrimination based on an employee’s protected status, such as race, gender, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, or even political affiliation.
Valid Reasons for Termination
If your termination occurred for one of the above reasons, you may have a legal claim against your employer. However, it is important to remember that not all terminations are illegal. Valid reasons for termination include:
- Poor performance, productivity, or quality of work
- Insubordination or breaking company policy
- Attendance issues
- Criminal behavior
- Harassment, violence, or threats
- General layoffs
An employer who terminates an employee for an unlawful reason is unlikely to be upfront about it. Some employers also use probational periods for new employees to avoid potential liability. Employees who believe that they were terminated illegally must identify evidence showing that the employer’s reason was both illegal and a “substantial motivating factor” for the termination. Evidence can include comments by the supervisor or manager involved that suggest a bias. Some tips for collecting evidence include:
- Documenting written evidence, including emails, text messages, or slack messages
- Obtaining relevant records such as pay stubs, performance reports, or review notes
- Gathering the information of potential witnesses who may have observed any illegal activity
An employee may also establish wrongdoing by showing that the employer treated them differently than another employee who acted in the same way. For example, an employer terminates an African American employee for violating a workplace rule but did not terminate non-African American employees who violated the same rule under similar circumstances. This could support the employee’s claim that the termination occurred for racial reasons.
Consultation with an experienced wrongful termination lawyer can help terminated employees determine if they have the necessary evidence to successfully pursue a termination claim.
What is the Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Termination in California?
A statute of limitations is the amount of time after an event that a person has to file a lawsuit. After the passage of this time period, you generally cannot file a claim. Because the statute of limitations may vary depending on the type of claim you choose you file, you should consult with an experienced attorney as soon as possible if you believe you have been the victim of wrongful termination.
What Are the Potential Damages for Wrongful Termination in California?
In wrongful termination cases, an employee may seek damages for:
- Lost wages, past, and future
- Any other benefits
Anxiety, emotional distress, or depression caused by the termination
- Punitive damages if an employer is guilty of fraud or malice
- Attorney’s fees and costs
Termination and Wages
State law requires employers to pay employees all wages owed at the time of termination. Cal. Labor Code § 201. This includes the employee’s wages up to the termination date and also the employee’s accrued and unused vacation or paid time off (PTO). Cal. Labor Code § 227.3. For commission employees, employers must also pay all earned commissions calculated at the time of termination. Cal. Labor Code § 201. This does not apply to unpaid sick leave.
If an employer willfully fails to pay a terminated employee all wages, including accrued vacation and earned commissions, the employee may also receive waiting time penalties. Waiting time penalties accrue in an amount equal to the employee’s daily rate of pay multiplied by the number of days the employee was not paid, up to 30 days. Cal. Labor Code § 203.
What is Constructive Discharge?
You can pursue a claim without termination. An employer can make working conditions so terrible that an employee has no choice but to quit. If this happens, there may be a case for constructive dismissal or discharge. If you think any reasonable person would consider resigning under similar conditions, contact us to determine if you have a valid claim. Furthermore, wrongful termination and constructive discharge damages are the same under California Law.