When Is An Employment Termination Illegal? (Unfair Does Not Always Mean Illegal)

Q: I worked in a company for more than 10 years. A new supervisor was recently transferred to my department. This person and I do not get along. Last week, our human resources director informed me that the company was letting me go and gave me my last paycheck. I don't have any disciplinary record and I was not given a reason for why I was let go. Can the company just fire me without a good reason?

A: Yes, an employer can fire an employee without a good reason. Employment in California is considered to be “at-will.” The employment-at-will doctrine states that either the employer or the employee may end the employment relationship at any time. Therefore, an employee can quit his or her job for any reason at any time.

The employer's right to terminate the employment at any time applies, even if the employee's job performance has been excellent. The employer may even terminate the employee for no reason at all.

A termination is illegal if it is based on discriminatory intent or is a violation of public policy. Discriminatory intent pertains to discrimination based on such protected characteristics as age, race, sex, color, religion, national origin, disability, medical condition, pregnancy, and even union affiliation.

A termination is also illegal if it violates public policy. This means that the termination is likely illegal if the employee was fired because:

  1. The employee refused to violate a statute (e.g., the employee refused to commit an illegal act)
  2. The employee performed a statutory obligation (e.g., the employee was absent in order to serve in a jury)
  3. The employee exercised a statutory right or privilege (e.g., the employee declined to take a polygraph examination)
  4. The employee reported a statutory violation for the public's benefit (e.g., the employee reported the employer's illegal act to a government or law enforcement agency – this is also known as “whistleblowing”)

A termination may also be wrongful if the employer was retaliating against the employee for registering internal complaints regarding the safety of the employer's products or for refusing to engage in nonconsensual sexual acts. Employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who opposed unlawful practices, filed complaints or testified in an investigation or hearing conducted by a government agency.

Terminations can be difficult situations, particularly where employees see the employer as unfair. Unfortunately, an employer's unfair conduct may not necessarily be illegal. But if there is a discriminatory or retaliatory motive behind the firing, the employee should consult with an experienced employment attorney to determine available remedies under the law.

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