Exceptions to At-Will Employment in the State of California
California, like most states, uses an “at will” employment doctrine as the default relationship between employers and their workers. This policy is established in California Labor Code Section 2922, which states that “an employment contract of indefinite duration is generally deemed to be at the will of either party.”
In simpler terms, this means that, unless you sign a contract explicitly defining how long your employment will last, both you and your employer have the right to terminate the working relationship at any moment without any legal repercussions. Of course, many employees provide two weeks advance notice of their departure to preserve a professional relationship with the company that hired them, and employers sometimes extend a similar courtesy. Furthermore, there is absolutely no obligation on the part of the employer to provide any type of severance benefits in connection with terminating the at-will employment relationship.
There are, however, exceptions to the general rule of at-will employment which prevent the employer from terminating the employee. Per the California Supreme Court in Tameny v. Atlantic Richfield Co. 27 Cal. 3d 167, 164 Cal. Rptr. 839, an employer cannot terminate an at-will employee if it would be contrary to public policy established by statute or regulation. For example, an employer may not terminate an employee because of their sex, race and/or disability, as that would be contrary to the Fair Employment & Housing Act (“FEHA”) as set forth in California Government Code section 12940 et. seq.. Similarly, an employer may not terminate an employee in retaliation for refusing to participate in perceived illegal activity and/or reporting the employer to a governmental agency. (California Labor Code §1102.5) For more information on such a claim, review the wrongful termination information in the practice area section of our website.
In order to prevail on such a claim, an employee must establish the substantial motivating factor in the decision to terminate violates public policy. Employees do not have a claim for wrongful termination simply because the employer has engaged in illegal activity, as there must be a nexus between the termination and the unlawful conduct.
The implied exception to the at-will presumption involves a circumstance wherein the court can find that there was an agreement not to terminate an employee except for “good cause” or until a certain period expires. Although a written employment agreement does not exist, the court implies such an agreement by an oral agreement between the parties, the parties conduct over time, the employer’s personnel policies and/or the fact that such agreements are customary in a particular industry.
If you feel that you may have been the victim of an unlawful termination, contact the PERRIN LAW GROUP today for your free consultation.