Both California and federal law provide protections against an employer demoting or firing an employee for certain reasons. As a general rule, unless there is a written employment agreement, all employees in California are “at will,” which means they can be fired for any reason, however unfair or petty it may seem. This also allows employees to leave their job at any time for whatever reason they like.
However, there are certain situations where it is illegal for an employer to demote or fire their employee. Those situations involve a violation of a fundamental public policy. In order to fall under this rule, the following must happen:
• There must be a violation of a policy that is supported by either constitutional or statutory provisions (i.e. a state or federal law must have been broken).
• The policy must be public in the sense that it “'inures to the benefit of the public” rather than serving merely the interests of the individual.
• The policy must have been articulated at the time of the discharge.
• The policy must be “fundamental” and “substantial.”
Examples of violations of public policy are:
• Racial discrimination
• Age discrimination
• Disability discrimination
• Gender or sexual orientation discrimination
• Retaliation for failing to participate in illegal activities
• Retaliation for complaining about illegal and/or fraudulent activities
If an employee can prove that the violation of the public policy at issue was a motivating factor in their demotion or firing, they can potentially bring a claim against their employer for wrongful termination in violation of public policy.
Statute of Limitations
There are a number of different factors at play in determining how long you have to file a lawsuit for wrongful termination. It depends on the nature of the relationship between you and your employer, who your employer is, and how you choose to pursue your claim.
Most basically, under California's Fair Housing and Employment Act , if your wrongful termination is based on discrimination, harassment, or retaliation, you must file a claim with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing within one year. Then, once you are issued a "right-to-sue" letter from the DFEH, you have to file a lawsuit within one year. (The same process involving the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission differs in some ways).
If your wrongful termination claim is based on you being fired in violation of public policy, the statute of limitations is two years.
If your wrongful termination is based on a breach of a written contract, the statute of limitations is four years.
As you can see, determining what kind of claim you have, who to file with, and how much time you have can be very complicated and confusing. Our attorneys specialize in these types of cases, and can answer any questions you may have.
If you believe you have been fired from your job or forced to leave your job because of an improper and illegal reason, please contact us to discuss your claim.