California employment relationships are generally at-will, meaning either party may terminate the relationship with or without cause at any time and for any reason or no reason at all. However, there are exceptions, and an employer cannot terminate an employee for reasons that violate California public policy.
What Does It Mean to Violate “Public Policy?”
A wrongful termination that violates public policy occurs when an employer terminates an employee for exercising a legal right or obligation that affects the greater public. These cases generally fall into four categories whereby an employee is terminated for: (1) refusing to violate a statute; (2) performing a statutory obligation; (3) exercising a statutory right or privilege; or (4) reporting an alleged violation of a statute of public importance.
For example, an employer cannot fire you for taking time off to serve on jury duty or for military service because these are statutory obligations (legal duties). Similarly, you cannot be terminated for refusing to commit fraud at the request of your employer (refusing to break the law), or for filing a wage complaint with the Labor Commissioner (exercising a statutory right).
The public policy at issue must involve a matter that affects society at large rather than an interest personal to the employee or employer. It must also be set forth in California or federal law, and the policy must be fundamental, substantial, and well-established. The requirements for what qualifies as a violation of public policy are nuanced, so if you suspect you have been terminated for one of the above reasons, do not hesitate to contact an experienced California employment attorney.
Examples of California Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy
Wrongful termination in violation of public policy can take many forms. If your employer terminated you for one of below reasons, you might have a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy:
- Reporting unsafe workplace practices or other OSHA violations.
- Reporting an employer’s refusal to pay wages on time, or refusal to pay minimum wage or overtime pay.
- Reporting employer violations of meal or rest break requirements.
- Engaging in political activities outside of work.
- Discrimination based on age, sexual orientation, or gender.
- Reporting or complaints of sexual harassment.
- Refusing to sign a covenant not to compete.
- Reporting employer violations of California or federal family or medical leave
- Refusing to engage in illegal conduct (e.g., fraud, embezzlement, forgery).
- Refusing to sign an agreement releasing an employer from liability for intentional acts.
- Retaliation for being a whistleblower (e.g., reporting securities fraud or fraud related to the use of public funds).
- Discussing wages with other employees.
- Retaliation for testifying in court as a witness.
Keep in mind the alleged policy violation must affect the public-at-large, and an employee has two years from the time of termination to file a wrongful termination claim.
Wrongful Termination Remedies
In California, to successfully prove wrongful termination in violation of public policy, you must demonstrate:
- An employment relationship existed, which can include part-time or full-time employees but not independent contractors;
- The employer terminated the employee; employee resignation or nonrenewal of a contract is generally insufficient unless the employer forced the employee to resign;
- The employer’s reason for termination violated public policy and was a substantial motivating reason for the termination; and
- The employee suffered damages as a result of the termination.
If an employee is successful in their wrongful termination suit, they may be entitled to compensatory damages (compensate for actual loses like lost wages, benefits, or emotional distress damages); punitive damages (meant to punish the wrongdoer rather than compensate the harmed party); or attorney fees and costs.
If you believe you were fired in violation of public policy, contact us for a free consultation. The California wrongful termination attorneys of Ottinger Law have decades of experience providing personalized, zealous representation on behalf of their clients.