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Anatomy of a wrongful termination claim in California

Claims for wrongful termination of employment are common in the courts of Southern California, but many people think that most employees cannot bring such claims because they are employees at will; that is, they may be fired at any time for no reason. While this view is generally correct, California courts have carved out an important exception: discharges based on actions that are violations of public policy.

To prevail in a wrongful termination case, an employee-at-will must prove the following facts by a preponderance of the evidence:

  • The existence of an employment relationship with the defendant.
  • The circumstances that constituted the discharge.
  • The employee refused to take an action that would have violated public policy and this refusal was a substantial motivating factor for the discharge.
  • The discharge caused harm to the plaintiff.

The key factor is proving that the employee was fired for refusing to take an action that would have violated public policy. Generally, California courts have identified four categories of discharge that involve an unlawful reason for termination: the action would have violated a statute, the action involved a statutory duty, the employee was properly exercising a statutory right or duty, and the employee reported (or threatened to report) the violation of a statute of public importance. To recover damages, the employee must also prove that the wrongful termination caused some form of monetary damage. The two most common categories of damages in such cases are lost income and emotional pain and suffering.

Anyone who feels that they have been fired or threatened with discharge for disobeying a direction to violate a law or for calling attention to the employer's violation of a law may wish to consult an attorney who handles wrongful termination cases. Such a consultation can provide a useful analysis of the facts and law that govern the case and an estimate of the likelihood of recovering damages and attorneys' fees.

Source: courts.ca.gov, "Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions," accessed on Jan. 23, 2017

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