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Wrongful Termination

Jul 14, 2008
For any lawful reason or for no reason at all, the general rule in California is that an employment relationship may be ended by either the employer or the employee at any time. The majority of employees do not work with an express contract of employment (verbal or written) and are instead considered in "at-will employment." Without fear of consequences, absent a contract, employers are generally free to fire their employees. Even though the law appears to favor an employer at the time of termination, there are different situations in which a termination or a "lay off" would be considered illegal and could perhaps lead to a lawsuit.

As long as there was an agreement--either spoken or implied--of discharge only for just cause, the employer/employee relationship is not "at will." At times you can simply refer to the employee "handbook," which may clearly state the specific situations in which an employee can be terminated. The practice is fairly common in companies of all sizes. Reasons why an employee can be terminated may also be set forth in other writings, such as inter-office memos and company "guidelines." A breach of contract claim by the employee may well be valid when an employer violates his own rules.

Sometimes the issue is whether other evidence or the employers' conduct has a tendency to demonstrate the existence of an actual mutual understanding on particular terms and conditions of employment even when there is no expressed agreement. Without any particular words being spoken, an implied contract may be created. Except upon a showing of good cause, an implied agreement that the employee not be terminated is generally created in such a situation. Factors that determine the existence of such a contract include personnel policies or practices of the employer, the longevity of service by the employee, actions or communications by the employer implying continued employment, and the practices of the industry in which the employee is engaged.

When an employer's decision to discharge or demote an employee is made in good faith and based on a fair and honest reason, good cause to terminate an employee exists. If the employer's reasons for the discharge or demotion are trivial, arbitrary, inconsistent with usual practices, unrelated to business needs or goals, or if the stated reasons conceal the employer's true reasons, good cause does not exist. The employer is likewise liable for damages if an employee is terminated because of their sex, race, color, religion, or national origin.

An employee may have a valid claim when his employment is terminated or if he is demoted because he has exercised certain rights protected under the law, in addition to a claim for breaching the implied contract not to terminate except for good cause. The employee is likely entitled to compensation, for example, when an employer retaliates against him for reporting a work-related violation to the proper authorities. This type of claim is sometime referred to as a "whistleblower" claim.

Even in the case of a seemingly lawful termination, the employee may still sue for damages on the basis of the employer's history. Some employers intentionally exploit their employees and then terminate their employment before the employee is aware their rights have been violated. As set forth in the California Labor Code, employees are entitled to meal and rest periods. Certain penalties may be collected by the employee following what appears to be a lawful discharge if a failure to comply with this law subjects the employer to such penalties. If an employer terminates an employee, the employer is obligated to pay any outstanding salary to the terminated employee; even in the case of resignation, the employer has 72 hours to pay the departed employee. The employer who does not comply with these time limitations may incur penalties which can include continuing to pay the employee's salary for as long as 30 days.

Employees commonly have certain rights to compensation separate and apart from just their last paycheck after an employee-employer relationship ends. Violating the Labor Code by a termination proceeded by unfair treatment then gives rise to damages, as does a wrongful termination.

There is an almost endless list of potential claims for damages, so every wrongful termination case is unique. Enlist the help of an attorney and you will find your way through the facts and reach a just result.
About the Author
Paul W. Ralph is a wrongful death attorney Orange County and racial discrimination lawyer, he has successfully handled many important court cases and lawsuits during his 15 years of practice. As an Orange County personal injury attorneys, Mr. Ralph has made the cover of both Trials Digest and the Los Angeles Daily Journal, and has even appeared on CNN.
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