California Wrongful Termination And Employment Law Summary

Employers do not possess an absolute right to discharge employees, even at-will employees, in California. The power of an employer to terminate employees is limited by federal and state law (such as laws prohibiting race and sex discrimination in the workplace) and public policy considerations.

This discussion focuses on how public policy considerations limit an employer’s right to terminate an employee.  Wrongful termination is the discharge, firing or termination of an employee in violation of fundamental principles of public policy. If this occurs, the employee may bring a lawsuit for wrongful termination (also called wrongful discharge).

No precise definition of a “public policy” is provided under California law. However, the violations of public policy supporting a California wrongful termination lawsuit generally fall into four categories:

  1. refusing to violate the law or perform an illegal act;
  2. performing a statutory obligation or report;employment discrimination, wrongful termination
  3. exercising a statutory right or privilege; or
  4. reporting an alleged violation of a statute of public importance to supervisors or to an appropriate governmental entity (this is commonly referred to as “whistleblowing”).

Employees in both the private and public sector may assert a claim for wrongful termination. The employee is not required to show that the employer terminated him or her solely based on the employee’s refusal to violate the law. It is sufficient if the employee’s refusal to violate the law was a substantial motivating reason why the employer terminated the employee.

The damages permitted for a wrongful termination claim are found in tort law. This means the employee’s damages are not limited to his or her lost wages or salary. The employee can recover these damages plus damages for his or her emotional distress and anxiety and punitive damages in cases of extreme wrongdoing.

Wrongful Termination For Refusing To Engage In Illegal Activity

Courts have long recognized an employee’s right to bring a wrongful termination suit for refusal to commit perjury and other crimes as well as refusing to engage in unlawful discrimination against another employee.

A more recent example occurred in the case of Tameny v. Atlantic Richfield Company (Arco), decided by the California Supreme Court in 1980. The employee alleged that Arco had fired him after 15 years of service because he refused to participate in a scheme to fix retail gasoline prices in violation of federal and state antitrust laws.

Our environmental protection laws can serve also as the basis for a wrongful termination claim. An example is terminating an employee for refusing to dump toxins into ground instead of properly disposing of them.

Wrongful Termination For Performing A Statutory Obligation

If an employee failed to perform an obligation which would subject the employee to criminal prosecution and the employer fired the employee because the employee did perform this obligation, the employee could bring a wrongful termination lawsuit against the employer.

Terminating an employee for filing a mandatory report of suspected child abuse, a physician reporting a patient’s seizures to the Department of Motor Vehicles, or a staff member who reported elder abuse at a nursing home to the appropriate regulatory agency are all examples of wrongful termination for performing a statutory obligation.

Wrongful Termination for Exercising A Statutory Right Or Privilege

Wrongful termination cases can be brought on the basis of the employee being discharged for exercising a right or privilege granted under the law such as:

  • discharge for filing a worker’s compensation claim;
  • discharge because of union membership and activity;
  • discharge for serving on a jury; and
  • discharge for taking meal and rest brakes.

Wrongful Termination For Reporting A Violation of The Law (Employee Whistleblowers)

California Labor Code section 1102.5 contains important protections for employee whistleblowers.

Subpart (a) of section 1102.5 prohibits an employer from making, adopting, or enforcing any rule or policy preventing an employee from disclosing information to the government or a law enforcement agency, the employee’s supervisor, another employee who has the authority to investigate or correct violations of the law, or any public investigative agency if the employee has reasonable cause to believe that the information discloses a violation of state or federal law.

Subpart (b) of section 1102.5 mirrors subpart (a) and makes retaliation against employee whistleblowers unlawful.

The case of Williams v. Wyndham Vacation Ownership demonstrates the power the law provides whistleblowers in California who bring wrongful termination lawsuits. With co-counsel, we represented with co-counsel Patricia Williams, a former a time share sale representative for Wyndham. In 2016, the case was tried before a jury in San Francisco. We presented evidence that demonstrated Wyndham fired Williams after she complained to her supervisors and the Attorney General’s Office that Wyndham salespeople were defrauding elderly timeshare owners, and that Wyndham management knew of and condoned the fraud.

Two legal claims were presented to the jury: (1) wrongful termination in violation of public policy and (2) violation of California Labor Code section 1102.5  The jury found in favor of Williams on both claims and returned a $20 million verdict against Wyndham for Williams’ lost wages, emotional distress, and punitive damages.

Protections Against Retaliation For Reporting Workplace Safety Violations

Both the federal and state government have laws in place to safeguard employees in the workplace. The Federal Government department that oversees workplace safety is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In California, this falls under the Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH).

In order to protect workers and the public from safety hazards, Cal/OSHA makes it possible for people to report safety violations anonymously. You can do this directly, or you can bring information through a lawyer, in which case it may become part of a lawsuit. The attorneys at The Dolan Law Firm can help you bring your information to the proper government office and advise you on steps to take to protect yourself from possible retaliation.

Employers may not retaliate against employees for reporting safety violations under Section 6310 of the Labor Code. Any employee with first-hand knowledge of safety regulations can report those violations to OSHA. Some of the safety violations that might be reported include:

  • Unsafe work practices such as removing safety guards or devices;
  • Failure to follow OSHA regulations on a construction site, such as open shafts and unprotected work and perimeter surfaces, improper crane construction; no helmets, drinking on the job, etc;
  • Failure to provide safety equipment in an industrial or manufacturing setting, such as hearing protection or respiratory protection equipment;
  • Failing to train employees leading to improper handling of toxic materials or dangerous equipment;
  • Failing to take precautions or to protect workers when there have been threats of workplace violence; or
  • Failure to protect the public from lead or other toxins used on a worksite.

Comparison Between Wrongful Termination And Constructive Discharge

If the employee was forced to resign rather than commit a violation of public policy, that is considered constructive discharge or constructive termination. The employee must show he or she was subjected to such intolerable working conditions that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would have had no reasonable alternative except to resign.

The damages available for constructive discharge and wrongful termination are the same.

Contact A Wrongful Termination Employment Lawyer Today

The Dolan Law Firm has been protecting employees in the San Francisco Bay Area and across California from harassment, retaliation and wrongful termination for more than 20 years. We have obtained for our clients some of the largest verdicts in California in individual employment lawsuits, including a $20 million verdict in 2016 for an employee wrongfully terminated.

Please contact an employment attorney at the Dolan Law Firm for a free, no obligation and confidential case review.