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Wrongful Termination in the California Workplace

California Government Code 12920 states, “It is hereby declared as the public policy of this state that it is necessary to protect and safeguard the right and opportunity of all persons to seek, obtain, and hold employment without discrimination.” This means firing an employee for certain types of discrimination including race, sex, national origin, or age—is illegal.

Wrongful Termination Under “At-Will” Employment?

If you were recently let go from your job, you could be wondering whether you have grounds for a California wrongful termination lawsuit. California, like most other states, operates under the “at-will” policy, meaning employees can be fired for any reason—or for no reason at all. This means that, as a whole, California employers are not required to be fair or nice.

There are, however, specific exceptions to the at-will rule, and California employment rights are among the most protective of employees in the United States. When a California employer crosses the line to terminations which are prohibited by law or public policy, a wrongful termination lawsuit may result. The exceptions to the at-will policy include the following:

  • Employees cannot be fired based on a protected characteristic. This means discriminatory termination is illegal. Employers are prohibited in the state of California from firing employees based on age (if the employee is at least 40), genetic information, race, color, citizenship status, disability, religion, pregnancy, sex, AIDS or HIV status, medical condition, military and veteran status, political activities or affiliations, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, status as a victim of domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault, or national origin. Employers in the state of California with at least five employees are required to comply with these laws, and may not retaliate against an employee for asserting his or her rights.
  • Employees cannot be fired in breach of an existing contract. Employees in the state of California who have a written, oral or implied contract which assures them job security, cannot be fired for a specified period of time without good cause. If an employee only has an implied contract, this means there were no specific promised made, however the employer has acted in a way which gave the employee reasonable expectations his or employment would continue. Being fired without good cause, despite an employment contract, means a legal claim for breach of contract may be filed.
  • Employees cannot be fired, disciplined or retaliated against for filing a wage claim or otherwise asserting his or her rights under California’s wage laws. The wage laws in the state of California include:
    • Employees are entitled to a minimum wage of $9 per hour;
    • Employees have the right to overtime when they work more than eight hours in a row, or more than 40 hours in a week;
    • Employees must be paid time and a half or double time for overtime, depending on the number of overtime hours worked;
    • Employees are entitled to one 30-minute unpaid meal break per day once he or she has worked five hours;
    • When an employee has worked ten hours during a single workday, he or she is entitled to a second, unpaid 30-minute meal break, and
    • Employees are entitled to a paid, ten-minute rest break for every four hours worked.
  • Employees cannot be fired for taking time off from work for personal responsibilities or specific civic obligations. Under California law, these rights include the following:
    • Jury duty;
    • Voting leave;
    • Military leave;
    • Pregnancy disability leave;
    • Family and medical leave;
    • Military spouse leave, and
    • “Other” protected leaves including alcohol and drug rehab leave, bone marrow and organ donor leave, domestic violence leave, crime victim leave and participation in a child’s school or daycare activities.
  • Employees cannot be legally fired for other state claims, including:
    • Making safety complaints;
    • Refusing to engage in work which would violate state safety standards;
    • Filing a workers’ compensation claim;
    • Testifying in a co-worker’s workers’ comp claim;
    • Engaging in lawful activities during non-work hours, such as a lawful political protest;
    • Refusing to disclose medical information;
    • Disclosing violations of the law to government agencies, and
    • Disclosing wages or working conditions to others.

The Elements of a Wrongful Termination Lawsuit Based on Discrimination

The plaintiff in a California wrongful termination lawsuit must be able to prove certain facts of the case, known as elements. The elements necessary will differ, depending on the basis of the lawsuit. As an example, wrongful termination based on a refusal to disclose medical information will have differing elements than a wrongful termination lawsuit based on filing a workers’ comp claim. That being said, for discrimination specifically, the following elements must exist:

  • There was an employment relationship between employer and employee;
  • The employer terminated the employment of the worker;
  • The worker’s protected status (gender, age, race, etc.); was a motivating reason for the termination.
  • The employee suffered harm, and
  • The harm suffered by the employee was due, to the employer’s conduct.

It is not required that the employee’s protected status be the only factor in the employee’s termination, but it must be more than a remote or inconsequential factor in the employer’s decision making process. An employee could potentially be fired for mostly legitimate reasons, however if the employee can prove his or her protected status was a factor in the termination, he or she may be entitled to damages under California law.

The California Wrongful Termination Statute of Limitations

There are various statutes of limitations which require plaintiffs to bring their claim within a specific period of time or be forever barred from doing so. These time frames are beyond the scope of simple advice, and vary depending upon whether you are filing a statutory claim with the EEOC, DFEH, in Superior Court or other administrative agency. As a basic rule of thumb, a lawyer should be contacted promptly in order to determine what the limitations or your particular claim may be. As a rule, the longer you wait, the more likely it is that you have a statute of limitations issue.

Increasing the Strength of Your Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

There are specific things you can do which will significantly assist your attorney in building a strong wrongful termination case on your behalf. These include:

  • Ensure your wrongful termination case is well-documented; witnesses and/or documented evidence of repeated incidences of discrimination are crucial in a California wrongful termination case.
  • If there were legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons given for the termination, be sure and tell your attorney—he or she must have all the facts in order to build a solid case on your behalf.
  • Make sure you minimize the extent of your financial harm. This means you must look for employment following your termination in order to minimize your financial harm—you must only make reasonable efforts to find comparable employment, you are not obligated to take a job at a fast-food place if your prior job was a corporate attorney.

What Can You Expect in the Way of Compensation for Your Wrongful Termination?

Generally speaking, if you are a victim of wrongful termination you may be entitled to compensatory and punitive damages, unless your termination is based only on your employer’s breach of an existing employment contract. You may also be entitled to recover attorney’s fees and to be reinstated in your former job.

Compensatory damages may include:

  • Wages and benefits you would have received if you had not been wrongfully terminated, and
  • Emotional distress suffered from the wrongful termination.

Punitive damages are meant to punish the wrongdoer, therefore damages can be greater than what was actually suffered. Punitive damages can be up to nine times the amount of actual damages suffered. Punitive damages may be available when your employer was guilty of:

  • Malice;
  • Fraud, or
  • Oppression

Call San Jose Wrongful Termination Attorney Kael Briski Today

If you have been wrongfully terminated from your California job, it is important that you seek legal help for your wrongful termination lawsuit. The laws surrounding wrongful termination can be quite complex and the time limits short. Having an experienced California employment attorney in your corner will ensure your rights are protected and that you have the best outcome possible.

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