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Wrongful Termination and At-Will Employment

Guha Law Aug. 20, 2021

If you live in California and work for an employer within the state, you generally are classified as an at-will employee, although there are certain exceptions. While this type of employment means both employer and employee can end the employment relationship at any time, wrongful termination does occasionally happen. It’s important to understand at-will employment and how wrongful termination can occur.

What Is At-Will Employment?

With at-will employment, an employer can terminate an employee for any reason or even no reason. The employer doesn’t even have to give a warning prior to terminating the employee, but the termination must be legal without any unscrupulous reasons behind it. At the same time, an employee can quit their job at any point and not state a reason either.

Around 74% of all workers in the country are considered to be at-will. While many are terminated in a legal manner, there may be instances when some employees are the victims of wrongful termination.

What Are Exceptions to At-Will Employment?

There are certain exceptions to at-will employment. If a worker falls under any of these categories and the employer fires them, it can be considered wrongful termination. Those categories include the following:

  • Employment in the public sector: These employees aren’t considered at-will.

  • Unionized jobs: Workers in unions have agreements that make them exempt from at-will employment.

  • Contracted employees: People working on contracts have an agreement that exempts them from at-will employment.

  • Refusing to violate public policy: Employees who refuse to violate public policy cannot be terminated through at-will rules.

  • Actions protected by public policy: At-will doesn’t apply when an action an employee takes is protected by public policy, such as whistleblowing.

  • Implying there’s a contract: If the employer implies there’s a contract, they cannot legally terminate an employee.

  • Breach of good faith: If the employer is guilty of a breach of good faith, they cannot legally terminate an employee.

  • Discrimination: At-will employment doesn’t apply when the employer discriminates against the employee.

  • Refusing to perform an illegal act: If an employee refuses to do something illegal and the employer fires them, it’s against the law.

  • Retaliation against union members: Employers cannot retaliate against union members through termination.