Most employees in California are considered “at-will” employees. In fact, California’s Labor Code contains a presumption that employees in California are employed at will. What this means is that the employee may terminate their employment at any time. Likewise, employers are free to fire an employee with or without cause. In other words, employers may terminate an employee for any lawful reason such as for poor performance or breach of company policy – or even for no reason at all.
While a number of employees believe that their job is protected unless they break a company rule, engage in some other misconduct or perform their job poorly, this is simply not the case. In fact, an employer is free to arbitrarily terminate an employee’s employment for any reason, even if the employee is adequately performing their job.
There are notable exceptions to the at will presumption, however. Indeed, California law protects an employee from being terminated based on any number of protected characteristics including the employee’s age, sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, among others. Specifically, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) prohibits employers from terminating at-will employees based on the employee’s race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, or sexual orientation.
Employees are also protected from termination if their firing is in retaliation for reporting unlawful conduct in the workplace. Employees are generally permitted to report certain unlawful conduct without fear of discipline from their employer. Thus, if an employee reports the violation of a state or federal law or regulation such as harassment or discrimination in the workplace, unsafe working conditions, or any number of wage and hour violations such as failing to pay overtime or not providing meal or rest breaks, employees are entitled to receive protection from retaliation by their employer and may not be terminated for reporting such conduct.
California law also protects employees from being retaliated against and terminated for taking certain types of leave that the employee may be legally entitled to take. For example, an employer cannot terminate an employee for taking a medical leave due to a disability or for being injured on the job.
If you believe that you were terminated for any unlawful reason, please feel free to contact our office for a free consultation.