At-will employment is a prevalent and often misunderstood aspect of the working world. In an at-will employment relationship, both the employer and the employee have the freedom to terminate the employment at any time and for any reason that is not illegal. However, this flexibility can sometimes lead to disputes and allegations of wrongful termination.
In this blog, we will explore the concept of at-will employment, discuss the circumstances under which employees can sue for wrongful termination, and provide insights into the legal considerations involved.
Understanding At-Will Employment
At-will employment is the default employment relationship in the United States and in many other countries. It means that, unless there is an explicit employment contract or collective bargaining agreement that states otherwise, either the employer or the employee can terminate the employment relationship with or without cause and with or without notice.
This flexibility offers a certain degree of freedom for both parties, but can also create uncertainty and potential pitfalls. It is widely known that in California there is a presumption that the relationship between an employer and employee is “at-will,” which means that, generally speaking, either the employer or the employee could leave the relationship at any time for any lawful reason.
This presumption is so important that it has been codified. Section 2922 of the California Labor Code provides as follows: “An employment, having no specified term, may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other. Employment for a specified term means an employment for a period greater than one month.” Cal. Lab. Code § 2922.
Where the employment is at-will, the employer’s motive for termination and lack of care in doing so are generally irrelevant. Thus, it is immaterial that the employer acted in “bad faith” or “without probable cause.” Guz v. Bechtel Nat. Inc., 24 Cal. 4th 317 (2000).
Understanding Wrongful Termination
While at-will employees can be terminated without cause, there are situations where termination may be considered wrongful and give the employee grounds for legal action. These situations often revolve around:
1. Violations of Public Policy: Employers cannot terminate employees for reasons that violate public policy. For example, firing an employee for reporting illegal activities within the company or for refusing to engage in illegal activities may be considered wrongful termination. “While an at-will employee may be terminated for no reason, or an arbitrary or irrational reason, there can be no right to terminate for an unlawful reason or a purpose that contravenes fundamental public policy.” Gantt v. Sentry Ins., 1 Cal. 4th 1083, 1093 (1992), overruled by Green v. Ralee Eng’g Co., 19 Cal. 4th 66 (1998). The employer’s obligation to refrain from discharging an employee in violation of public policy does not depend upon any express or implied promises set forth in the employment contract. Rather, it reflects a duty imposed by law upon all employers.
2. Breach of Implied Contracts: Even in at-will employment, implied contracts may exist. If an employer has made oral or written promises regarding job security or specific termination procedures and then violates those promises when terminating an employee, it may be grounds for a lawsuit.
3. Discrimination and Retaliation: Terminating an employee based on their race, gender, religion, age, disability, or other protected characteristics, or in retaliation for engaging in legally protected activities (such as reporting harassment or unsafe working conditions) is illegal and can result in wrongful termination claims.
4. Violations of Employment Agreements: If there is a written employment contract in place that outlines specific terms for termination, and the employer breaches those terms, the employee may have a valid claim.
5. Whistleblowing: Employees who expose wrongdoing within their organization or report illegal activities to the appropriate authorities are often protected by whistleblower laws. Wrongfully terminating a whistleblower can lead to legal action.
Contact Akopyan Law Firm A.P.C. for Advice
If you have questions about this or other aspects of employment law, please reach out to Akopyan Law Firm, A.P.C. With many years of experience, hundreds of content clients, exceptional outcomes, a complimentary case evaluation, and a contingency fee basis, Akopyan Law Firm, A.P.C. is the most experienced firm to answer questions and assist with viable cases. Empower your workplace rights with our wrongful termination lawyers in Los Angeles.