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Exceptions to at-will employment

Where one to survey those employed in Woodland Hills (or throughout California), the general consensus of most would likely be that as long as one does not give their employer a reason to fire them, then the employer cannot. Unfortunately, California is an "at will" state. According to Section 2922 of California's Labor Code, an employment agreement may be terminated at the will of either side. While this affords employees the chance to leave a company whenever they wish, it also allows companies to fire employees without needing to give a reason. 

One might read this and think that an employer can never be questioned in the decision to fire an employee, yet that is not actually the case. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are both statutory and common law exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine. Statutory exceptions are those that prevent employers from violating the law in their employee dismissals, such as firing someone based on discrimination or in retaliation. Common law exceptions include: 

  • If a firing is in violation of public interest or a public policy (such as firing someone for joining the military reserves or reporting an employer's regulatory violation)
  • If a firing violates an implied contract or implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing
  • If a firing involves intentional interference or intentional infliction of emotional stress

Promissory estoppels (or promises enforceable by law) may also provide one protection in an at-will employment case. To apply this principle to a case one must show that their employer made a clear and unambiguous promise of employment, that they relied on this promise, that their reliance was reasonable and foreseeable, and that said reliance resulted in injury. 

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