Under California law, people who are considered to be at-will employees have minimal protections if their employer decides to terminate their employment. Some of the protections that do exist are the laws against sexual, racial and other unlawful forms of discrimination. Another type of protection is for whistle-blowers. State and federal whistle-blower laws provide provide that if an employee's dismissal is a result of their good faith reporting of improper actions by their employer or if it violates public policy in some way, he or she may be able to seek recourse for wrongful termination.
In a case before the California Court of Appeal last year, a former administrator at Santa Clara University claimed that she was fired in violation of public policy. The university fired her in 2011, claiming that she had conducted questionable finance practices with university money. She claimed that the real reason for her termination was that she had complained about what she saw as a pattern of inappropriate behavior by her department's director. She said she told the budget director of the university that her supervisor took kickbacks on commercial property near the school, drank at work and engaged in various actions that negatively impacted students, businesses and regulators in the area. Although she was an at-will employee of the university, she alleges that her termination was a violation of public policy.
The Court of Appeal did not decide the woman's case on its merits, but it overruled a lower court's decision and held that her case can go forward.
Generally, at-will employment allows an employer to terminate an employee at any time, for any reason, but there are exceptions. California provides employees with an exception to challenge such a termination if it is a violation of public policy.
Employees may have a case if they feel that their employer has violated their rights for retaliatory purposes or in violation of public policy. Based on the facts of their cases, they may be able to recover damages from their employer.
Source: California Court of Appeal for the 6th Appellate District, "Ferrick v. Santa Clara University," filed Dec. 1, 2014