Wrongful Termination Law
This page details California’s wrongful termination law. It gives a broad overview of the law, how it applies to employees, and the remedies someone might recover if they are fired unlawfully. But this page should not serve as a substitute for speaking with a wrongful termination lawyer. This page barely scratches the surface of the complexity behind CA employment law. If you want to know if you have a case, call our record breaking law firm for a consultation.
By reading this page you will understand:
- What is “at-will” employment in California
- The legal definition of wrongful termination
- What it means to be fired in violation of “public policy”
- What can kind of remedies you can receive in a lawsuit
- How long do you have to file your claim
- How much you can expect to recover from a valid case
- How much will it cost to hire a lawyer
What is “At-Will” Employment in California?
California is an “at-will” employment state, which is a fancy way of saying that an employer may terminate an employee for just about any reason. This law can be found in CA Labor Code § 2922. This law, however, does not give employers free reign to fire their employees for any reason. That would just be ridiculous, right? Of course it would be, and luckily there are exceptions to the at-will doctrine.
What is Wrongful Termination?
California’s Supreme Court created an exception to the at-will doctrine in the 1980 case Tameny v. Atlantic Richfield. In this case, the Court created the tort claim of “wrongful discharge” stating that an employer’s authority to terminate at-will employees could be restricted by laws or public policies. Though employees maybe fired for no reason, or for a reason that does not make any sense, an employer may not fire an employee for a reason that breaks the law or violates public policy.
To be clear, wrongful termination law requires is that the employee prove that the employer fired him for a reason that violates public policy. So, what the heck is public policy? Great question. We explain this in the next section.
Examples of Public Policy
The following are examples of public policy that have been created either by statute or through case law:
- The employee was terminated because she refused to violate a law (such as illegal price fixing).
- The employee was terminated for opposing unlawful discrimination or harassment in the workplace.
- The employee was terminated because the employer was trying to avoid paying him his rightfully earned wages.
- The employee was terminated because she exercised his right to receive overtime wages.
- The employee was terminated because he have complained about an unsafe working environment.
- The employee was terminated because she complained about threats of physical violence from a co-worker.
- The employee was terminated because she had to take a protected family or medical leave.
- The employee was terminated for going to jury duty.
- The employee was terminated for taking time off to be witness in court or to testify in a deposition in accordance with a subpoena.
- The employee was terminated in retaliation for reporting the employer’s violation of state of federal regulations to an agency.
- The employee was terminated for telling other co-workers how much they are being paid.
- The employee has been terminated for disclosing information regarding the employer’s working conditions
This is just a small sample of CA’s public policies. If your gut is telling you that your termination may qualify, contact an employment lawyer to explain your situation.
What Kind of Remedies Can I Recover?
If you win your claim, there are three kinds of money damages you may receive: lost wages, emotional distress, and punitive damages (these are rare).
Lost wages, also called “economic damages,” include not only your wages (hourly or salary), but also any employment benefits you have lost (bonuses, paid vacation, retirement contributions, etc.) or the value of those benefits. For example, if your job paid you an annual salary of $50,000 per year, you are wrongfully terminated, cannot find work for a year, and you win your wrongful termination lawsuit, then you would be eligible to recover $50,000 in lost wages. If, however, you have the same salary as above, but you immediately found a job that pays you $35,000 per year, you would only be able to recover the difference in value of $15,000. Wrongful termination law will try to account for both past wages and future wages that you will lose going into the future.
Emotional distress damages is how CA law attempts to compensate you for any pain and suffering you went through due to the wrongful dismissal. This is an unpredictable process that can include recovery for anxiety, depression, mental anguish, and uncertainty. These injuries need not be permanent for such a recovery. For instance, the employee can recover from insomnia, vomiting, uncontrollable crying, and depression (many others symptoms as well). Again, California law tries to account for any past and future emotional distress.
Punitive damages are extremely rare in these lawsuits. They occur in only 7-10% of verdicts. The Bohm Law Group’s percentage is much higher than average, however. The point of punitive damages in termination law is to serve as a deterrent from other bad guys participating in the same conduct. For punitive damages to even be considered, you will need to show that the employer acted with oppression, fraud, or malice. This is a very difficult burden. Additionally, the burden of proof by which you must show these is that of “clear and convincing” which is harder than it seems.
But what about attorney’s fees?
In many types of employment cases you can also win your attorney’s fees (your attorney’s hourly rate x the number of hours he/she worked on the case). Unfortunately, wrongful termination law does not provide for recovery of attorney’s fees. In order to win these, you will also have to bring an additional claim where such fees are recoverable such as discrimination or harassment.
How Long Do You Have to File Your Lawsuit?
California Code of Civil Procedure § 335.1 states that wrongful termination claims are subject to a two-year statute of limitations. This clock starts at the time of actual termination, not the time that the employee receives notice of the termination. It is not advisable to wait long if you feel you have a wrongful termination lawsuit because your case may consist of multiple claims that may have varying statutes of limitations.
What is the Average Length of a Case?
Most wrongful termination cases end in a settlement. But it is impossible at the start to predict how long it will take. Anecdotally, our attorneys have had lawsuits in which settlements occur in a few months, but most cases take closer to two years.
When a wrongful termination lawsuit goes all the way to trial, it may be several years after you first started your case. If there is an appeal, it may take an additional year. Even if your case goes your trial, it is still possible that you may settle in the middle of trial.
What if I was Employed by a Public Entity?
CA Government Code 815(a) states that unless provided by a statute “[a] public entity is not liable for any injury, whether such injury arises out of an act or omission of the public entity or a public employee or any other person.” Because wrongful termination law comes from case law, such a claim is not allowed against a public governmental entity. But don’t fret, lots of employment laws overlap and this is no exception. If your gut is telling you that your termination was illegal, call a lawyer for a consultation.
Hiring a Lawyer
Our office handles a lot of termination lawsuits every year. Our are known throughout the state as the go-to wrongful termination lawyers for difficult and high-value cases. Our results speak for themselves. We love our job because we provide hope and justice for people who can’t help themselves.
How Much Can I Expect to Recover From My Case?
Many people who have been unlawfully terminated wonder what the average recovery from such a case amounts to. First, most lawsuits do not even go to trial, but instead are settled. While this is a good thing, these settlements are subject to confidentiality agreements making such data on average settlements hard to locate.
There is more data on trials as they take place in the public court system. A UC Hastings study conducted in the 1990’s has some interesting information. The study showed that when cases went to trial, the employees won their trials between 47% and 57% of the time. The median verdict for such a victory was between $152,000 and $270,000. Additionally, a Berkeley Law publication states that the employee wins 61% of the time with a median verdict of $340,500.
But how much you recover depends on many factors including how good your lawyer is, how favorable the facts are, and how mad the jury is at the defendant. The same facts, with a different jury, will yield different results. You should not develop an expectation that you’re going to get a certain amount. Listen carefully to your wrongful termination lawyer. After the case facts have come out in discovery, he or she will tell you what you may get in a settlement.
How Much Will it Cost to Hire a Lawyer?
Most wrongful termination attorneys work on a contingency basis, the Bohm Law Group is no exception. This means we receive a percentage of what we win for you. You do not pay us out of your pocket. Generally, we also front the costs of your case, so you don’t have to pay the substantial court and expert fees out of pocket. This is a great fee structure because most people who just lost their job can’t afford to pay a lawyer’s hourly rate!
Look, we know the law is complicated and confusing and scary. That is why you should give the Bohm Law Group a call to discuss your case. We will hear your story, take notes, have a wrongful termination lawyer review your facts quickly, and we’ll tell you whether or not you should file your case.
 CA Labor Code § 230(b)