Employee clearing his desk after being made redundant

Understanding At-Will Employment in California

Law Offices of Charles P. Boylston Sept. 29, 2023

If you are an employee who believes you were wrongfully terminated from your job—or an employer being sued for wrongful termination—it’s important to be clear on the facts.

The Law Offices of Charles P. Boylston is here to help. At our firm, we know that this can be an incredibly frustrating time for both employees and employers. That’s why it’s vital to be fully informed of your rights and your responsibilities. 
When you’re ready to understand how at-will employment works in California, reach out to us. We represent employers and employees in Temecula and throughout Southern California, including the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, and Riverside. Set up a consultation with our employment law attorneys today.  

What Is At-Will Employment in California? 

California is an at-will employment state. This generally means that California allows an employer to fire an employee for any reason or none at all, with a few exceptions. It also allows an employee to leave a job for any reason or none at all. Neither face legal jeopardy in doing so. In other words, employers are free to choose who works for them and employees are free to choose where they work. In other words, at-will employment flows both ways.

For example, the company that employs Jane Doe can fire Jane when she shows up for work one day. Jane may be performing her job well and coming to work regularly, but the company just decides she’s no longer a good fit.   

Alternatively, Jane can call the office one day and tell the employer that she will no longer be working there. She does not need to give a reason, and the employer can take no legal action against Jane for doing so. 

What Are the Exceptions to At-Will Employment?

There are a few exceptions to at-will employment. These three exceptions could lead to legal action against an employer for wrongful termination of employment.  

1. Implied contracts  

An employee may contend that the employer has implied that employment would be permanent or long-term unless the employee is fired because they are not performing their duties. An implied contract could be a verbal agreement between the employee and employer, such as the employer’s statement that the employee should “settle in their office for the rest of their career,” or the employee will “never need to update their resume.”

An implied contract could be reflected in such documentation as the company’s employee handbook or policies and procedures manual. For example, there may be a termination process outlined in a company document that outlines a multi-step process for performance reviews, counseling, and probationary periods. An employee might infer that unless they have poor performance reviews, receive counseling, and are given a period of time to improve performance, their termination is wrongful. 

2. Public policy 

The public policy exception protects the employee from being required to participate in activities that violate the public interest. For example, an employer cannot fire an employee who refuses to lie under oath or break the law for the employer’s benefit. Likewise, the employee cannot be retaliated against for filing a workers’ compensation claim or for serving in the military reserves or on a jury. 

Moreover, this exception protects an employee who reports a violation of the law or is a “whistleblower.” For example, it is wrongful to terminate an employee who reports an employer’s hiring of non-citizens in the country illegally. 

3. Covenant of good faith and fair dealing

This exception recognizes that employers have an obligation to treat their employees fairly and with good faith. Firing an employee right before they retire to exclude them from pension benefits or firing one just before they are scheduled to earn a performance bonus could be considered bad-faith practices.

Another possible example: recruiting a new employee for a position the employer suspects will be eliminated. The employee leaves their current employment and moves to take a new job, but the employer does not disclose to the employee that the company is being acquired by another company. When the acquisition occurs, the employee’s position is eliminated. 
In any of these situations, it’s important to reach out to an employment lawyer for guidance.

Are There Unlawful Terminations in an At-Will Employment State?

So far, we have explained three exceptions that an employee may use to prevail in a wrongful termination lawsuit. These exceptions have been established by common law, but not by statute, which makes them wrongful—but not illegal or unlawful.

‘Unlawful’ terminations occur when an employer breaks state and/or federal laws, such as age, race, disability, or gender discrimination. Other broad categories of unlawful termination include sexual harassment and disobeying employment laws regarding wages, salaries, overtime, and hour restrictions. 

For instance, the National Labor Relations Act gave employees the right to engage in collective bargaining by joining unions without employer reprisal. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act limits the number of hours a truck driver can log on the road during a certain period of time. An employer who fires a driver for refusing to violate the regulation is breaking the law.

Let Our Experience Guide You 

As employment law attorneys, we represent employees and employers in wrongful and unlawful termination of employment matters. As such, we have experienced insight into both prosecuting a claim and defending one.   

If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, or if you are an employer facing a wrongful termination lawsuit in Temecula or elsewhere in Southern California, reach out to the Law Offices of Charles P. Boylston today. We are ready to help.