Limits to At-Will Employment in California

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Most areas around the country are considered at-will employment states, including California. This means a few things. First, an employer can terminate an employee at any time, with or without cause. Additionally, this means that an employee can leave their job for any reason without giving their employer notice. However, the at-will employment doctrine does have limitations, and it is important to understand those limitations when you are in the workforce.

What is At-Will Employment in California?

When examining California labor laws, you will not see a specific term called “at-will employment.” However, this is generally meant to mean that the employee can leave their job at any time for whatever reason, and the employer can terminate an individual for just about any reason, so long as the termination does not violate state or federal laws or regulations.

Typically, employment is presumed to be at-will in California, but there are situations where provisions can be included or acknowledgment through a written or verbal contract that the employee can be terminated at any time. Conversely, there may be a contract or verbal agreement in place that overrides an at-will employment situation.

Legal Limitations to At-Will Employment in California

One of the main exceptions to when an at-will employment situation does not apply includes contract-based employment. The right of the employer to terminate an employee without cause could be limited if the employee and the employer have entered into an express contract or an implied contract.

An express contract occurs when both the employer and the employee agree to explicitly stated terms, either written into a contract or through a verbal agreement. An example of an express contract could include a provision in an employment agreement that restricts the right of the employer to fire an employee unless they have good cause for the termination.

An implied-in-fact contract revolves around when both parties form an understanding that a contract exists. There may not be specific provisions that have been listed out. An implied-in-fact contract we’ll need to be examined on a case-by-case basis and typically looks at the company’s personnel policies, how long an employee has been working with the company, typical industry practices, and assurances made on the part of the employer to the employee.

It is critically important to point out that state and federal law prohibits various protected groups from facing prejudice, and, thereby, termination in the workplace in many circumstances. This includes termination based on the factors that place the person into a protected group in the first place. In California, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) echoes provisions put in place by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) at the federal level. These laws include protections for those based on their:

  • Gender
  • Color or race
  • Ethnicity
  • Pregnancy status
  • Age
  • Disabilities
  • Veteran status
  • Sexuality or gender identity

The law also protects individuals depending on their union status and agreements as well as those who become whistleblowers, to alert authorities about illegal workplace activities or unfair workplace practices.

If you or somebody you love has been terminated from a job in California, but you believe the termination to be wrongful, reach out to a wrongful termination attorney in Long Beach as soon as possible. You may be entitled to various types of compensation for what happened.