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The many exceptions to California’s at-will doctrine

Like most other states, California is an employment at-will state. What this means is that, an employer is legally free to let an employee go at any time and for any reason, or even for no reason whatsoever.

Likewise, employees are under no obligation to give advance notice or a reason for leaving before they quit.

However, as California is relatively friendly to workers, there are a number of exceptions under California law to the at-will doctrine. Federal laws may also create exceptions to the at-will doctrine.

An employment contract, written or otherwise, may nullify the at-will doctrine

For example, the terms of an employment contract, which can include a handbook or even just an oral promise, may require an employer only to terminate an employee for good cause.

This is why it is important for Santa Monica employers and employees alike need to be careful about their communications and understand exactly what terms they have agreed to.

What is a good cause for terminating an employee depends both on state law and the terms of an employment contract. At a minimum, employers who want to fire someone for cause will have to have a clear reason for doing so and information to back that reason up.

California and federal statutes also limit the at-will doctrine

Even without an employment contract or collective bargaining agreement, employees in Southern California may still have protection under both federal laws and state laws.

As a common example, both federal and California law prevent various types of employment discrimination.

Laws also specifically prohibit employers from firing or otherwise retaliating against an employee for exercising certain legal rights, such as, for example, the right to complain about the safety of one’s workplace.

Employees who have been terminated should not assume that they do not have options just because California is an at-will state. Likewise, employers should exercise due caution before terminating an employee.