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What is wrongful termination?

California, like most states, allows at-will employment where employers have wide discretion to terminate employment. But there are situations where firing an employee is illegal. Employers may private lawsuits and government investigations and legal action.

Wrongful termination

The illegal firing of an employee is wrongful termination. While employers typically have the have right to terminate an employee for issues such as job performance, Federal and California laws prohibit firings for certain reasons.

Also, some laws govern how a worker may be terminated. The federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act requires advance notice to employees when there is a mass layoff or the closure of a business division.

These are the usual illegal reasons for firing an employee.


Federal prohibits discrimination and firing an employee based on race, religion, gender, national origin, age, sexual preference or disability. Federal laws include the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities, Act, and the Age Discrimination Act. California laws also prohibit workplace discrimination and harassment.

Retaliation and whistleblowing

Employers may not retaliate against an employee for protected activity, such as reporting a safety or wage violation or harassment. Similarly, employees have whistleblower protection for submitting complaints of certain safety laws and regulations, such as an OSHA violation.

Illegal activity

Workers may not be fired for refusing to violate the law. They cannot be terminated for reporting crime.

Employment contracts

Many times, employment and union contracts govern the reasons for terminating employees and the procedures for their termination. Employees may be fired only for good cause under an implied contract.

Lie detector test

 Employers may not require that workers undergo a lie detector test to keep their jobs except in limited situations. Some government agencies and security firms may use polygraphs to screen applicants.  Pharmaceutical manufacturing and security services may also obtain exceptions.


Employees may not be fired because their citizenship or place of birth. This violates several laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Workers may file lawsuits against their employer if there was a wrongful termination. Many federal and state agencies may also take legal action under specific laws. Attorneys can help assure that rights are protected.