A Top Rated Employment Law Firm Servicing Westminster, California
Stephen Danz and Associates represents employees throughout California. Our attorneys are experienced labor lawyers with decades of handing wrongful termination, discrimination and retaliation in Northern California and Southern California. In Westminster, California, our legal counselors are highly localized and specialized to handle complex employment lawsuits where private individuals trust us to bring forth their cases in state and federal courts.
What is Wrongful Termination in California?
Under California labor law, in the absence of an express or implied employment contract, the employment relationship is presumed to be “at will” which means either the employee or employer may terminate it at any time. However, an exception to the at-will employment doctrine is that employers cannot terminate an employee for a reason that goes against fundamental public policy.
What are the Advantages for Plaintiffs When Claiming Wrongful Termination?
The cause of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy has become an important source of tort damages for plaintiffs, especially since the California Supreme Court held in 1988 that tort damages could not be recovered for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The cause of action is also important because it may be asserted even by an “at-will” employee. It is not subject to defenses that might be successful against other causes of action. For example, the workers’ compensation exclusivity doctrine does not usually apply to this cause of action and an at-will agreement has no legal relevance to it.
What Are the Elements of a Wrongful Termination Cause of Action?
To sustain a claim of wrongful termination in violation of public policy, the plaintiff must prove the following:
(1) He or she was employed by the defendant;
(2) The defendant terminated the plaintiff’s employment;
(3) A violation of public policy was a substantial motivating reason for the termination; and
(4) The termination caused the plaintiff harm.
The Employer-Employee Relationship
The first element of a wrongful termination claim is the existence of an employer-employee relationship. This means that a claim can only be made by employees against employers, not individual supervisory employees and not if there was an independent contractor relationship. In addition, public entities are immune from liability except as provided by statute. Whether the employee is at will or has a contract for a specified term is irrelevant; all employees are entitled to assert a wrongful termination claim.
What is Considered Termination under Wrongful Termination Cause of Action?
The second element of a wrongful termination claim is that the employer has terminated the plaintiff. Over the years, courts have extended the tort to constructive terminations as well as other actions short of termination.
Non-renewal of Employment Contract is Insufficient as Basis For Wrongful Termination
The non-renewal of an employment contract cannot support a wrongful termination claim. This is true even if the decision not to renew the contract was potentially unlawful.
Violation of Public Policy
The third element of a wrongful termination claim is that the adverse employment action is a violation of a public policy that is (1) in a constitutional provision, statute, or administrative regulation, (2) beneficial to the public, and (3) fundamental, substantial, and well established.
Link Between Public Policy and Termination
It is not enough to show the existence of a fundamental public policy; the plaintiff must also show that there exists a link between the public policy and the termination. Most often, the plaintiff establishes this nexus in one of two ways:
(1) By showing that the employer retaliated against him or her because he or she engaged in constitutionally, statutorily, or regulatorily protected conduct; or
(2) By proving that the employer discriminated against him or her based on a constitutionally, statutorily, or regulatorily protected status.
Claims Based on Employer Retaliation
Wrongful termination claims based on employer retaliation typically arise in one of four contexts:
(1) exercising a statutory right or privilege;
(2) reporting an alleged violation of law (e.g. whistleblowing);
(3) refusing to participate in illegal conduct; and
(4) performing a statutory obligation.
Defense Rejected – Occupational Safety and Health Act (Cal-OSHA)
A terminated employee may assert a wrongful termination claim based on employer retaliation for a complaint of an unsafe or unhealthy workplace under the California Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1973 (Cal-OSHA). A defense of preemption under Cal-OSHA will not prevail.
Even when an employee has agreed that he or she is an “at-will” employee, such an agreement has no relevance to a wrongful termination claim. The obligation to refrain from terminations in violation of public policy cannot be bargained away. Whether the employee can validly waive the benefits of public policy is an issue that may well arise in a wrongful termination action.
Remedies for Wrongful Termination Claims
A wrongful termination subjects the employer to liability for compensatory and punitive damages under normal tort principles. Because tort damages, including punitive damages, are also available in civil actions under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), damages decisions in FEHA cases may be useful in wrongful termination cases.
(1) Economic Damages
Compensatory damages may include economic loss (e.g., lost income) and general damages for emotional distress. Economic damages typically include back pay and future loss of earnings.
(2) Damages for Emotional Distress
Recovery for emotional distress may encompass not only prior emotional distress caused by the wrongful termination, but emotional distress “reasonably certain to result in the future.”
(3) Punitive Damages
The employer’s conduct that is challenged in a wrongful termination claim is often egregious by its very nature and thus may persuade the jury to find clear and convincing evidence of fraud, oppression, or malice. Accordingly, these cases may particularly warrant the imposition of punitive damages.