Most California employees are “at will” employees. This means they may be terminated by their employers with or without cause, with or without prior notice. By the same token, “at will” employees may resign from their employment with or without cause, with or without prior notice.
There are a few exceptions to “at will” employment, including the following: (1) Where the employee has an employment contract for a specified period of time; (2) Where the employer, by its own conduct, has essentially nullified an employee's “at will” employment status by making certain statements, promises, or representations; (3) Where the employee engaged in certain legally-protected conduct.
Examples of Legally-protected Conduct:
- An employee may not be lawfully terminated for legitimately reporting sexual harassment (See also “Retaliation”);
- An employee may not be lawfully terminated for participating in an investigation into allegations of unlawful discrimination or harassment;
- An employee may not be lawfully terminated for filing a worker's compensation claim;
- An employee may not be lawfully terminated for “blowing the whistle” on certain unlawful conduct (See also “Whistle-Blowing”);
- An employee may not be terminated for complaining internally about not receiving overtime pay, proper rest breaks or lunches, or proper wages;
- An employee may not be terminated for filing a complaint with a governmental or administrative agency, such as the Labor Board.
The above examples illustrate the types of conduct for which an employee may not be terminated. Keep in mind, these examples are not all-inclusive. There are other circumstances which may protect you from a termination.
If you are terminated from your employment and you believe one of the above-mentioned exceptions to “at will” employment applies to you, you may have a claim for a wrongful termination. This type of claim generally makes available the following damages: Compensatory damages, emotional distress damages and punitive damages.