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At-will employees and wrongful termination

Most employees in San Diego understand that they are hired on an “at-will” basis, that is, either party can terminate the employment relationship at any time without cause. This rule, however, has a several important exceptions that limit the employer’s right to unilaterally fire at-will employees.

The most important exception to the at-will employment rule is the public policy exception. Most states, including California, allow employees to seek damages for wrongful termination if they can prove that the employer violated an important, explicit and well-established public policy of the state by firing the employee. For example, racial bias will make a discharge wrongful if it shown to be a motivating cause for the discharge. Another important example of wrongful discharge is firing a worker for filing a workers’ compensation claim.

A related example of wrongful termination is the violation of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing that is recognized in California. Under this rule, both parties to the employment contract are bound by an implicit covenant to deal with each other on a straightforward basis, and an employer’s decision to discharge an employee cannot be motivated by bad faith or malice.

An employer cannot force an employee to quit by making the working conditions onerous or unpleasant. In such cases, an employer who resigns to escape the adverse working conditions, such as sexual harassment or race-based discrimination, can still maintain an action for wrongful termination, even though the employer took no overt action to end the employment relationship.

Anyone who has questions about the circumstances of a discharge may wish to consult a knowledgeable employment attorney. An experienced lawyer can evaluate the circumstances of the discharge and provide advice on the likelihood of establishing that the discharge fits within one or more categories of wrongful termination.


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