How do I know if I was wrongfully terminated from my job in California?

By | October 20, 2016

Being wrongfully terminated from a job can be financially and emotionally stressful; however, the laws in California surrounding wrongful termination are made to protect victims. Wrongful termination lawsuit damages can range from recouping your lost wages, to multi-million-dollar past and future wage loss settlements – especially in California where the cost of living is much higher. Most California personal injury attorneys handle wrongful termination lawsuits and can help you evaluate your case and determine next steps. Typically, but not always, they work on a contingency fee basis, meaning no fees are paid until they win your case for you. Below is information that can help determine if you or someone you know is the victim of a wrongful termination in the state of California.

At-Will vs. Contract Employment 

It’s important to understand what kind of relationship you had with your employer; whether it was an “at-will” or contract employment. An at-will employment allows the employer, as well as employee, to terminate the employment at any time, for any reason (as long as it’s legal). While most employers include an “at-will” clause in the employment contract or employee handbook, the law in California assumes that employment is “at-will” unless otherwise specified.

The other type of employment, and one that is becoming less and less common, is contract employment. Contract employees are hired for a specified amount of time laid out in the employment contract. Employers can only fire contract employees for “good cause,” typically reasons having to do with job performance, or if there is an express written clause in the original contract, such as, “the employee can only be terminated for committing a federal crime,” and the employee actually does commit a federal crime. See some of the ways employers wrongfully terminate at-will and contract employees below:

Breaches of Good Faith and Fair Dealing

This is simply the idea that the employee and employer have an implied obligation they will act in good faith and fairly with each other without breaking their word, avoiding obligations, or denying something the other party obviously understood. Courts have found employers in violation of this concept by:

  • Terminating employees to keep them from collecting sales commission
  • Misleading employees about their chances of receiving a promotion or pay raise
  • Terminating an employee for the sole reason of replacing them with someone who will do the same job for lower pay
  • Creating a hostile work environment in order to force the employee to quit

Violating Public Policy 

Violating public policy in this case refers to firing an employee for reasons the public recognizes as illegitimate grounds for termination. Courts require a specific law stating the policy which is why many federal, state, and local laws specify actions that violate public policy. Examples of these actions include:

  • Disclosing information of the company refusing to pay their employees
  • Taking time off to serve jury duty
  • Taking time off to vote in an election
  • Serving in the National Guard or another military branch
  • Filing a whistleblower claim against the company with a law enforcement or equal employment agency

State or local governments may institute additional policies to protect employees. In California, for instance, it is also illegal for an employer to terminate an employee for refusing to break a law for the job.


Thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employees are protected from being fired based on certain characteristics. Although at-will employees can technically be terminated at any time, employers cannot fire an employee based on a reason that is deemed “illegal” – like discrimination. While many states have included additional protections, these are the federal protected classes:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Pregnancy
  • Genetic information


It is illegal for employers to negatively punish employees that have participated in legally protected activities. In order for an employer’s actions to be considered “retaliatory,” it must have a negative effect on the employee, such as, being denied a raise or promotion, receiving a poor work review when the employee’s work was above average, or more obviously, being fired. The federal government considers the following activities as legally protected:

  • Filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
  • Formally reporting harassment or discrimination to the company
  • Participating in an EEOC investigation or serving as a witness in an investigation
  • Several different types of “whistleblower” cases


Wrongful termination can even occur without being fired at all. Defamation occurs when someone else knowingly said (or wrote) something false about you and as a result, your reputation was hurt. This comes into play with wrongful termination if your previous employer, when contacted by your potential employer, intentionally makes false or malicious statements about you and you don’t receive the position as a result. In order to sue for defamation, you must prove your former employer:

  • Made a false statement about you
  • Made the statement with “malice” (knowing it was untrue)
  • Told (or wrote) the statement to another person
  • Harmed you because they communicated the statement

What You Can Recover 

If you win your wrongful termination case, you could be entitled to various types of monetary damages which vary depending on the details of the case. Below are some types of damages that can be recovered:

  • Lost Pay: This includes pay that you’ve lost because you were terminated from your previous position, as well as, overtime and lost bonuses.
  • Lost benefits: This can include medical and dental insurance, 401k plans, stock options, profit sharing, and more. Since these benefits don’t always have specific monetary values, your attorney may need to bring in an expert to calculate how much you will need to ask for in trial.
  • Emotional distress: Pain and suffering is typically only awarded if the employer’s actions were especially bad. The amount that is awarded for these damages is entirely up to the jury – which makes it difficult for your attorney to give an estimate of how much to expect.
  • Punitive damages: These damages are designed to act as an additional “punishment” to the employer for wrongfully terminating the employee. These types of damages are not available in every wrongful termination case and aren’t available in some states.

Being wrongfully terminated creates financial and emotional hardships on the victim. It’s important to contact a qualified attorney in your area as soon as possible if you think you have been wrongfully terminated from your previous job. Most attorneys will offer a free consultation to review your claim and see if you have a case against a previous employer. By hiring an attorney, you know that you have their full support and experience to get the compensation you deserve.

About Author

Lauren is a content writer located in San Diego, CA that works with Gomez Trial Attorneys and other law firms throughout the country. The main goal of her writing is to educate the public on various personal injury and other civil litigation matters  to help them make informed decisions when pursuing a claim.

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