Can an At-Will Employee Be Fired for Any Reason in California?
The vast majority of employees in the U.S. do not have employment contracts with their employers which set out the standard by which the employment may be terminated, e.g. “for cause.” Employees who do not have such employment agreements are often referred to as “at-will employees,” the idea being that the employee can be terminated at “the will” of the employer, for any number of reasons. Perhaps the company cannot afford to pay the employee, maybe the employee is not performing up to expectations, or maybe there is just a personality clash between the employee and others, whether rational or irrational. But this does not mean that an at-will employee can be fired for any reason, as some reasons are illegal and could form the grounds of a wrongful termination lawsuit against the employer.
Illegal Reasons to Fire an Employee in California
There are numerous California and federal laws which protect employees from being terminated (or demoted, suspended, or subject to any other adverse employment action) based on certain aspects of their identity. Illegal classifications in the context of a wrongful termination matter in California include:
- Nationality or National Origin
- Sexual Orientation
- Pregnancy status
- Political affiliation
- Age (for those 40 and above)
In addition, an employer cannot terminate an employee for a physical or mental disability when it is possible for the employer to make reasonable accommodations for the employee, e.g. providing equipment for the employee to do his job or shifting the employee’s responsibilities to more suitable tasks.
Also, employees cannot be terminated as retaliation for raising legal issues either inside or outside the marketplace, such as complaints of sexual harassment, protesting against labor violations, or whistleblowing on illegal actions being taken by the company.
When Your Employer Gives a False, Pretext Reason for the Firing
Most employers are at least somewhat aware of their liability for wrongful termination under state and federal laws, and so they will rarely come out and admit that an employee is being terminated for an illegal reason, such as the person’s religion, disability, or because they complained about harassment. Instead, employers will attempt to come up with a different, legal reason for firing the employee, such as tardiness or work performance, when that is not actually the reason.
This is called a “pretext” and a pretext does not make it legal for the employer to fire you when the actual reason was an illegal reason. Your employment attorney can investigate your termination to discover whether you were given a pretext reason, and, through the discovery phase of a wrongful termination lawsuit, can access otherwise private company information to determine whether an illegal reason was used to fire you. If so, you may be eligible for a significant financial recovery in your wrongful termination matter.