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California’s Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy Tort

  • In California, there is a general presumption that employees are at-will. At-will employment means absent an express or implied employment contract, the employment relationship can be terminated by either the employee or employer at-will. See California Labor Code § 2922. However, in California there are exceptions to the at-will employment relationship. On exception is employees cannot be terminated for an illegal reason or motivation. Therefore, while employees who are at-will can generally be terminated without cause (i.e. without a good reason), they cannot however be terminated for an illegal reason or motivation. Illegal reasons to terminate employees can be created by the Constitution, statutes, regulations, ordinances, codes, and other forms of public policy. An employer cannot terminate an employee for a reason that violates fundamental and well established public policy as determined by the California courts. In California an employment lawsuit can be brought against an employer for Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy for damages resulting from the termination, to include emotional distress, the value of lost wages and benefits, and punitive damages. In California a discharged employee may bring a lawsuit against their former employer if they have been terminated in violation of fundamental public policy contained in the Constitution or a statute, which courts determine support bringing the cause of action. For California employees the tort of Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy has become an important protection that provides them a remedy when they are terminated for reasons or motivations, which violate fundamental, substantial, and well-established public policy. However, not all statutes or law will support a lawsuit for Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy. The California Supreme Court has placed some requirements for the types of public policy that will support the tort lawsuit. The public policy that is violated must inure to the benefit of the public at large, rather than to a particular employer or employee. Further, California courts have held that the public policy must be based upon a specific constitutional provision, statute, administrative regulation or other law. In short, it is complex and difficult to determine what reasons or motivations for a termination are in violation of California public policy, which would support this tort. For this reason, a person who believes that they may have been terminated in violation of some public policy should immediately contact an experienced employment attorney, so the situation can be analyzed. To win a lawsuit for Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy the plaintiff must show a substantial motivation for their termination was because of some legally “protected activity,” which they engaged in. The legally “protected activity” is created by California public policy. For example, in California Cal/OSHA (http://www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/LawsAndRegulations.htm) has laws and regulations created to protect workers from health and safety hazards on the job. Generally, when an employee complains about unsafe or unhealthy working conditions in the workplace, the act of complaining is legally “protected activity” pursuant to public policy found in laws or regulations administered by Cal/OSHA. Thus, an employer generally cannot legally terminate an employee because they complained about an unsafe or unhealthy work condition. In California, there are many, many laws that make certain types of employee conduct “protected activity.” Some examples of employee conduct that generally would constitute “protected activity” in California include:
    • An employee refuses to participate in illegal activities.
    • An employee refuses to participate in conduct that would defraud customers.
    • An employee complains about sexual harassment.
    • An employee complains about racial discrimination or harassment.
    • An employee reports an unsafe work condition.
    • An employee reports an unsafe work condition to Cal/OSHA.
    • An employee complains about discrimination or harassment based upon their age, gender, religion, marital status, national origin, color, disability, or sexual orientation.
    • An employee complains about not being paid minimum wage, receiving overtime, or receiving rest breaks.
    • An employee reports being assaulted at work to the police.
    • An employee complains about not being paid on time.
    • An employee reports their employer for violating a Labor Code to the California Labor Commissioner.
    • A nurse/doctor complains about improper medical care for a patient.
    • A truck driver complains about violations of regulations created by the Department of Transportation.
    • An employee goes to a political rally to support a democratic candidate that his employer hates. An employee complains about his employer defrauding the government.
    These examples above, are only a few examples of situations that generally would constitute “protected activity” based upon California public policy. However, there are so many potential circumstances, which may constitute “protected activity” that an employee should always consult an experienced employment attorney if they believe they may have been wrongfully terminated. Plaintiffs’ employment law firms in California should have wrongful termination lawyers who are sufficiently experienced regarding how to bring a lawsuit for Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy. Further, any employee who was employed in Southern California who wishes to discuss their particular termination or situation, should be able to find an employment law firm who will consult with them for free. If you feel you may have a viable employment lawsuit it is very important that you contact an experienced and reputable employment law firm immediately. Many time a person is not even aware that they were illegally terminated until they speak with an experienced employment lawyer.

If you think you have been wrongfully terminated, or have had your rights as an employee violated, please feel free to contact