Losing a job can be one of life’s most traumatic experiences, almost equal to losing a loved one. Our jobs give us the ability to finance the rest of our lives, and the immediate loss of that money can cause palpable fear and uncertainty. More so, losing a job is a serious wound to our self-confidence, or social well being, and our sense of purpose. Jobs mean a great deal to us and when those jobs are taken from us for unlawful reasons, the impact is even greater as it causes us to feel betrayed and our sense of justice and fair play is highly offended.
Wrongful Termination Can Mean Many Things
Wrongful termination is a label somewhat loosely applied to some specific legal claims – three in particular.
The first is where the employer has terminated an employee in violation of one of several protective statutes. While the legal claim is likely going to be a violation of that statute, many refer to any claim that allows you to get damages associated with the loss of a job as wrongful termination. For more on this kind of claim, see our content on discrimination and retaliation.
The second is where the employer has terminated the employee in breach of an express or implied employment contract. While the claim would technically be called breach of employment contract, it is common for people to refer to this kind of claim as wrongful termination.
The third is the common-law tort known as wrongful termination in violation of public policy. This court-created cause of action allows those who have been terminated to claim it was wrongful if the motive behind the termination violates a fundamental public policy.
What is Not Wrongful Termination
Almost everyone who is terminated from their job feels it is wrongful. There are so many ways people lose their jobs. Office politics, backbiting co-workers, inept managers, mistaken belief that the employee has done something wrong, misinterpreted words or acts, failure to properly train or educate employees about proper procedures and processes, and so many other things can be the cause of the unfair or “wrongful” loss of a valuable job. Unfortunately, none of these common situations will qualify as a legal claim for wrongful termination.
In California, you are employed “at will” unless you have an express agreement to the contrary with your employer. The employer of an at-will employee can terminate that employee for any reason or even no reason at all, and that employer can exercise that right insensitively and callously. While most people could call termination for no reason, or done with disregard for the employee’s feelings to be “wrongful,” the law does not recognize that conduct as legally wrongful.
Breach of an Employment Agreement as Wrongful Termination
Sometimes, employees are employed subject to an express written agreement with the employer, and that agreement sets forth specific reasons, or “cause” that has to exist to justify termination. While technically this is not wrongful termination, it is often coined as such.
If you have an agreement that defines specific reasons that must exist to allow the employer to terminate you, and you believe you have been terminated in violation of the terms of the employment contract, it is important that you locate and consult with an experienced employment law attorney, like those at Pedersen Law, to fight for your rights.
The Common-Law Claim Known as Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy
California was one of the first states to establish a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Also known as a Tameny claim, named after the first case to establish the claim, this legal theory allows employees to state a claim that overcomes the at-will nature of the employment relationship and render a termination unlawful if the motivation behind the termination was violative of a fundamental and long-standing public policy.
There is a great deal of case law that has developed over the years that defines what is and what is not a termination in violation of public policy, and several legal analyses have been formed to determine what is and what is not a longstanding and fundamental public policy. While it is useful if a case has already declared certain defined conduct a violation of public policy, new conduct can be determined to be in violation of public policy by use of these various legal analyses. As a generalization, the following four classes of terminations are considered to be protected conduct that would give rise to a claim of wrongful termination:
- A termination expressly prohibited by statute
- A termination because the employee has exercised a statutory or constitutional right or privilege
- A termination because the employee refused to engage in unlawful conduct
- A termination because the employee reported alleged unlawful conduct by the employer, i.e., unlawful retaliation or whistleblowing.
Although these general categories are a good example of the kinds of things that can constitute a termination in violation of public policy, any motive for termination that can be proved to be contrary to a fundamental and long-standing public policy can be sufficient to state this legal claim.
The “Wrongful Termination” Claim Also Applies to Adverse Actions Other Than Termination
Case law has developed to a point where ANY adverse employment action that is taken in violation of public policy can be the basis for a Tameny claim. Demotions, refusals to promote, and even bad performance evaluations that substantially affect an employee’s ability to advance can all be the basis for such a claim if it can be proved that the adverse action was motivated by something contrary to public policy.
Proving Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy
Because the employer has the right to terminate an at-will employee or any reason or no reason at all, the main goal in a wrongful termination case is to prove what the employer was thinking at the time the adverse employment action occurred. The employer will likely come up with several reasons for the adverse action. The attorney’s job is to prove those reasons to be false, and to demonstrate the real reason for the action was in violation of public policy. This is not an easy task.
Nonetheless, experienced employment law attorneys, such as those at Pedersen Law, have years of experience sweeping aside the pretextual reasons thrown up to confuse and confound juries. Through skilled discovery efforts and trial techniques, these lies must be revealed and the real reason for the employer’s conduct exposed. It is unlikely a plaintiff without skilled and experienced counsel fighting for them can obtain anything close to the same result as one with an attorney like those at Pedersen Law.
Potential Damages for a Wrongful Termination Claim
When a wrongful termination case is tried against a former employer, the jury is being asked to compensate the wrongfully terminated employee, as well as to perhaps hold the wrongdoer responsible for its wrongful conduct. Generally, a wrongful termination claim allows the employee to recover financial losses, compensation for the emotional distress experienced, and, in some cases, even punitive damages to punish or make an example of the bad employer. Unfortunately, there is no right to seek attorney fees from the defeated employer in cases where the only claim is wrongful termination in violation of public policy.
Statute of Limitations for a Wrongful Termination Claim
You must file your lawsuit within two years of the date you were wrongfully terminated in order to protect your right to sue. Unlike statutory claims, there is no requirement that you first file an administrative complaint with the DFEH or the EEOC to be able to sue for wrongful termination. However many times a wrongful termination claim is a companion to these statutory claims, so do not wait to get to an attorney, thinking you have two years to do so. Do not let the chance for the greater remedies of the statutory claims expire thinking you can wait.
The good news is that if you have, for some reason, missed your deadline to file an administrative complaint related to unlawful discrimination or retaliation, but you have not let two years pass since your unlawful termination, you can still have the wrongful termination claim available to address the wrongdoing.
If you believe you have faced discrimination, harassment, wages and breaks violations, wrongful termination, or medical leave violations in Orange County, Los Angeles County, Riverside County, or San Bernardino County, contact our experienced team at Pedersen Law today.