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Is It Hard To Prove Wrongful Termination?
Proving wrongful termination depends heavily on the precise facts of the claim.
Things You Can Do to Make it Easier to Prove Wrongful Termination
Given that proving a wrongful termination claim depends heavily on the facts, it is important that you:
- Promptly report to your employer any instances of harassment or discrimination that have been directed towards you in the workplace. If the person responsible for the harassment or discrimination is a coworker, you should report the behavior to your supervisor or to Human Resources. If the person responsible for the harassment or discrimination is a supervisor, you should report the behavior to Human Resources or to someone in upper management who you believe will not place the interests of your supervisor over your interests.
- Detail in writing all the events leading up to your termination. You should record the names of the individuals involved, what was said and done, and where and when those events took place.
- Organize any documents you may have that relate in any way to your termination or the events leading up to your termination.
You should then promptly retain the services of an experienced wrongful termination attorney. All employees, even at-will employees, have a right not to be wrongfully terminated. The factors are intricate and complex, so if you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, you may need to Contact an experienced employment attorney who knows how to navigate these issues.
Wrongful termination has nothing to do with your work performance. Instead, wrongful termination is what happens when you are fired from your job for a reason that is unlawful under state or federal law—or for a reason that breaches a provision of a contract between the employee and the employer. Wrongful termination is also known as unlawful firing, unlawful dismissal, illegal dismissal, illegal termination, wrongful discharge, and being unfairly laid off.
Wrongful Termination Based on Breach of Public Law
The most common type of wrongful termination occurs when an employee is unlawfully terminated from his or her employment in breach of public law. In California, laws prohibit termination based on a great many grounds. For example, California’s preeminent anti-discrimination law, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), California Government Code sections 12900 – 12996 prohibits an employer from terminating an employee when the termination is motivated by a protected personal characteristic of the employee, such as race, physical disability, and sexual orientation. Say when an employee is hired at a company, the boss—who is heterosexual and is only comfortable being around persons of the same sexual orientation—just assumes that the employee is heterosexual because the employee has not said or done anything to make him think otherwise. Later on, the boss learns that the employee is in fact homosexual, so the boss then fires the employee because of the employee’s sexual orientation. This is probably a blatant example of unlawful termination. While the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) has the authority to investigate claims of wrongful termination based on violations of such laws as FEHA, you may want to contact an experienced employment attorney to guide you through the process.
The California Labor Commissioner, also known as the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), has the authority to investigate claims of wrongful termination that are not based on protected personal characteristics but instead are based on violations of the California Labor Code. For example, California Labor Code section 230(a) prohibits an employer from terminating an employee for taking time off for jury duty. California Labor Code section 98.6 prohibits an employer from terminating an employee for filing or threatening to file a claim or complaint with the Labor Commissioner. There are many other California Labor Code sections, which, if violated, can give rise to a wrongful termination claim.
Wrongful Termination Based on Breach of an Employment Contract
The other and far less common type of unlawful termination occurs when an employee is terminated in breach of an employment contract. Say you and your employer agree to an employment contract. The contract provides that you will be employed for a period of no less than one year unless you engage in certain identified acts of misconduct. Say then that you are fired after six months because your employer decides to replace you with a more qualified and experienced person. This is probably a blatant example of unlawful termination.
While an employer is not permitted under the law to wrongfully terminate a worker, an employer can legally fire a worker for no cause or for good cause. At this point a brief discussion of the nature of employment in California might be helpful.
Under California law, “An employment, having no specified term, may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other.” California Labor Code section 2922. What this means is that under California law there is a presumption that any employment relationship is at-will. An employer may terminate at-will employment at any time without cause and without having to go through any procedural prerequisites other than to notify the employee that his or her employment is ending. See Foley v. Interactive Data Corp. (1988) 47 Cal.3d 654, 677; Guz v. Bechtel National Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 317, 335.
The presumption that the employment is at-will does not apply if the employer and employee enter into a contract expressly limiting the employer’s ability to discharge the employee. Depending on the terms of the employment contract, unlike with at-will employees, contract employees cannot be terminated for no cause but only for cause. While employment contracts do exist, the vast majority of California workers do not have employment contracts and thus are at-will employees.Termination of At-Will Employment for No Cause
Usually, an employer need not tell you why your employment is ending. So long as your employer notifies you that you are being terminated and pays you all compensation owed up to that point in abidance to the California Labor Code (e.g. sections 203 and 2926) you generally will have no grounds upon which to sue your employer. Understand though that even if your employer doesn’t tell you why you’re being fired, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your termination was lawful. If you believe you were fired because of your medical condition or your age or some other personal characteristic protected under FEHA, then you may have been wrongfully terminated regardless of what your employer has or has not told you about the reason for your termination.Termination of At-Will Employment for Cause
An employer can also terminate your employment for cause. For example, it is lawful for your employer to terminate your employment if you make a severe error in your actions or judgment. If you are fired for being rude to customers or vendors, you generally will have no grounds upon which to sue your employer. The same goes for violating company policies concerning tardiness, absenteeism, lying, stealing, threatening violence, harassing other employees or customers, bringing weapons to the workplace, or providing false information on a job application. Again, though, the real reason you were fired may be because of your age, or because you complained to the Labor Commissioner about the underpayment of wages, and your employer has merely conjured up a violation of company policy to create the illusion that you were lawfully terminated, when in fact you were wrongfully terminated.
If you are at this site, you probably feel that your termination from your job was unfair. While not all unfair terminations are wrongful, many of them are. As discussed earlier in this article, for the most part wrongful termination under the law is a termination of employment that violates a state or federal statute. The analysis is heavily fact dependent, so you should contact an attorney to go over the details. An attorney will want information concerning potential witnesses. An attorney will want to review all documents you can gather that pertain to your employment; not just termination paperwork, writeups, leave of absence paperwork, and the like, but also items not so obviously connected to termination, such as your paystubs, paperwork given to you upon being hired, clock in and clock out records, performance reviews, any employee handbook, and company policies.
One reason why a careful review of the facts is so critical to a wrongful termination claim is because an employer will often offer a sham reason for the wrongful termination—a reason, which, if believed by a jury, would absolve the employer of all liability for the termination. Say you are diagnosed with cancer (medical condition is a protected category under FEHA). You put on a brave face and try to go on with your job as before. Eventually though you start having to take off more time for treatment. Occasionally you leave work early because you do not feel well enough to work. Previously, you were the customers’ favorite contact at the company because you were so perky and full of wit, but maybe now you’re not quite as perky or entertaining as before. The boss makes little snide comments to you such as “you’re sure your up to this?” and “do you think you should do something else?” After taking a day off to recover from treatment, the boss terminates your employment, saying he is “eliminating your position because business is slow,” even though business seems to be fine. Or your boss might cite poor work performance as the reason for your termination, which doesn’t ring true because you’ve always received glowing performance reviews, even after your illness. In this example, proving wrongful termination requires one to carefully shift through the facts to make a persuasive case for wrongful termination, as nothing explicit was ever communicated that connects your termination to your medical condition. Your attorney will review any notes you have taken, documents you possess, request and then review your employment records, and exhaustively go over with you the events leading up to your termination. Your attorney can then file suit and depose witnesses who may have heard oblique references to your medical condition or seen how other employees with medical conditions or disabilities were treated. Ultimately, your attorney may be able to piece together a detailed account that can persuade a jury that you were in fact wrongfully terminated because of your medical condition.Contact Us
If you have been wrongfully terminated, or if you believe your employer or former employer has otherwise violated your rights, call the experienced employment law attorneys at Kokozian Law Firm, APC or Contact Us via our online form.