When can an employee be terminated?

In California, most employment relationships are “at will.” At will employment means that the employer may terminate the employment relationship for any reason. However, there is an exception when there is some unlawful motivation or retaliatory reason for the termination. Unlawful motivations for termination are generally reasons which California courts have held are in violation of public policy. Examples of reasons for termination which may violate public policy include:

  • Race, sex, disability, sexual orientation, religion, or nationality
  • Refusing to work in unsafe working conditions
  • Opposition to an unlawful activity
  • Requesting an accommodation for a disability
  • Taking pregnancy leave
  • Taking time to vote
  • Marital or family status
  • Refusing to sign an unlawful non-compete clause
  • Taking family or medical leave
  • Reporting unlawful activities to a government agency

Another type of wrongful termination is called constructive wrongful termination. Constructive wrongful termination occurs when an employee is not fired but quits because the working conditions have become so awful that they have been left no other option but to quit. California courts have held that if conditions are so extreme that a reasonable person could not consider continuing to remain in their employment any longer, then a person may quit and seek damages for their lost wages as a result of the constructive termination.

However, Employees are expected to use exhaust all reporting mechanisms to resolve their employment issues before quitting. Failure to try and remedy the situation before quitting often prevents an employee from making a constructive termination claim. If an employee has exhausted all reporting mechanisms, and nothing changes, an employee may quit and seek compensation for their lost wages.