Wrongfully terminated employees often mistakenly believe there is nothing they can do about an employer’s unfair termination because the at-will doctrine dictates that employment may be terminated at the will of either party, “for any or no reason.” This narrow and mistaken understanding of the at-will doctrine results in 1) far too many unlawful terminations; 2) employees failing to hold their employer accountable for unlawful termination; and 3) employees leaving their just and deserved compensation on the table.
It is true that the at-will doctrine, codified in the California Labor Code, establishes that an employer may terminate an employee at will, absent contractual provisions to the contrary. Employers are not required to provide a warning or an objective evaluation to justify a termination. In short, an employer can terminate an employee for a good reason, a bad reason, an arbitrary reason, or no reason at all; but it cannot terminate an employee for an illegal reason.
There are many illegal reasons why employers fire employees. The following are a few of the most common unlawful reasons: 1) an employee has a disability that requires some reasonable accommodation; 2) an employee took a medical leave of absence for their own or a close family member’s medical condition; 3) an employee’s age; 4) an employee’s complaint about sexual harassment; or 5) an employee’s complaint about workplace safety or some unlawful conduct at work. Employers cannot use the at-will doctrine to avoid liability on an unlawful discharge.
When an employer wrongfully terminates an employee, they typically provide a false cover story, or pretext, about the employee’s performance to justify the termination. It is not surprising that employers create these cover stories, lest they reveal unlawful animus and subject themselves to legal liability. Employees must be aware of this phenomenon and be suspicious of a termination justification unsupported by or inconsistent with the facts. If an employer terminates an employee on false or unsubstantiated grounds, the employee may be entitled to substantial compensation for lost wages, emotional distress, and possibly punitive damages. The at-will doctrine will not insulate an employer from accountability for wrongful termination.