Understanding At-Will Employment in California
At-will employment is the most common type of employment relationship in the United States. Basically, it means that either the employer or the employee can end the relationship at any time, for any reason, with or without cause.
It's important to know your rights as an employee. In California, at-will employment is presumed to exist unless there is a specific agreement between an employer and an employee that says otherwise. If you're employed in California and don't have an explicit contract with your employer specifying otherwise, you're likely working "at will."
Because employers can terminate California workers with or without cause, it's important for employees to be aware of what this entails. Read on for more information about at-will employment in California.
Can California Employers Fire Employees for No Reason?
Though the overwhelming majority of U.S. states honor at-will employment, there are still numerous misconceptions regarding the rights of at-will employees. One of the biggest myths about at-will workers is the question of cause.
A company can indeed fire an employee without naming a reason. For example, if a grumpy and sleep-deprived boss fires a worker without a named cause, this would likely be a lawful decision in most cases.
However, it’s imperative to understand that “any reason” does not include unlawful reasons. While firing an employee for eating smelly food at their desk might seem unfair and even absurd, the reason itself isn’t necessarily unlawful.
At-Will Employment & Wrongful Termination
Employers can’t fire employees for unlawful reasons. This violation is considered wrongful termination. State and federal laws restrict companies from terminating workers on the grounds of:
- Protected classes. An employer cannot lawfully terminate an employee on the basis of a protected characteristic under the EEOC. These protected classes include race, religion, age, disability, national origin, or gender.
- Political affiliation. Employees terminated on the basis of political preferences in considered wrongful termination under California law.
- Retaliation. Companies can’t retaliate against employees who speak out or report misconduct in the workplace (such as theft or sexual harassment). This includes wrongfully terminating an employee who files a complaint.
- Protected leaves of absence. California employers can’t fire employees on lawful temporary leave, such as jury duty and military service. Moreover, workers cannot be fired for voting on election days, so long as their absence does not exceed two hours at the start or end of the shift or workday.
- Pregnancy. Employers can’t fire employees because they are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or suffer from a pregnancy-related condition (such as postpartum depression or breastfeeding).
Given an employer’s right to fire at-will employees without naming a reason, it may seem that they have the upper hand. However, in terminating an employee without a provided cause, employers can accidentally open the door to wrongful termination lawsuits—often to the detriment of the company.
Seeking legal counsel from a skilled employment law attorney is the best way for at-will workers to determine whether they have a case against an employer and recover the compensation they’re rightfully due.
California’s “Implied Contract” Rule
Another exception to the at-will employment doctrine is California’s “implied contract” rule.
An implied contract is defined as an agreement that, while not memorialized in written format, is legally binding nonetheless. Often, implied contracts insinuate certain expectations, such as employment duration or the promise to not fire an employee without good cause.
Proving Implied Contracts in Court
Implied contracts are often difficult to fact-check for obvious reasons. Because the inclusions of an implied contract are intangible, they’re typically harder to prove than contracts recorded in writing or other preservable format.
For this reason, the conditions of an implied contract are rarely hinged on whether or not a spoken promise was made between involved parties; rather, terms are implied through the conduct and behavior of the employer and employee.
As you may predict, the context and conditions of implied contracts often lead to varying interpretations in court. Before filing a claim against a California employer, it's wise to seek strong representation from a qualified attorney who can strengthen your case with sufficient evidence.
Strong Legal Advocacy for Wronged Workers in California
If you were recently terminated by a California employer for unjust reasons, it’s crucial to consult with a trusted employment law attorney as soon as possible, as they can help seek justice on your behalf by fighting for the compensation you deserve.
For over 25 years, our passionate employment lawyer at Polaris Law Group, LLP has exclusively focused on the rights of wronged California employees. Our team has a longstanding reputation for taking on cases that other firms are quick to turn down, giving us a significant edge in the courtroom.
We have experience handling a broad range of employee matters, from disability discrimination to unpaid wages to FMLA violations. Regardless of what problem you’re facing in the workplace, rest assured that our knowledgeable legal team will tirelessly defend your rights from start to finish.
Were you wrongfully terminated by a California employer? We can help defend your employee rights. Call our firm at (888) 796-4010 to schedule your free consultation.