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Knowing when job termination is unlawful

A challenging economy has affected businesses in California and across the country, and many have faced closures, bankruptcy, or vastly reduced output in order to survive. The effect this has had on the workforce, however, has been to make many people distrustful of the methods or intentions of employers who have reduced their hours, laid them off or fired them.

Although California, like all states except Montana, is an at-will state, a job termination may have been illegal depending on the circumstances surrounding the way the worker’s employment ended as well as the terms of their employment. For residents of Santa Monica and surrounding areas, getting an assessment of your claim is the first step toward protecting your rights.

The at-will presumption

All employment relationships that are not modified by contract or some sort of collective bargaining agreement are at-will, which means that the employer may end the relationship, reduce wages, terminate benefits, or reduce time-off pay without notice. The employee may walk away from the relationship with no notice as well.

There are common law exceptions to the at-will presumption that would make job termination illegal on the grounds of:

  • Public policy, when job termination violates a public-policy practice that may be in the state’s constitution or laws, such as discharge for refusal to be complicit in illegal activity or for filing a worker’s compensation claim.
  • Implied contract, which may be a verbal or otherwise unwritten understanding between the parties of the terms of employment, benefits or job security.
  • Covenant of good faith and fair dealing, applicable by judicial review of a standard of fairness in areas of personnel policy, job security, or fairness in the workplace

Federal and state protections

There are federal protections against discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights
Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, gender, color, national origin, disability, religion or race. Job termination due to any of these reasons or as a retaliatory action is against the law, as well as discharging an employee who is pregnant.

In addition, California has laws that make job termination due to retaliation or discrimination illegal, and workers may also have protections under the federal WARN Act for violations involving mass layoffs.