It is illegal in California to fire an employee because of their race, age, gender, religion, disability, sexual orientation or national origin. Although such discrimination claims are covered under the California Department Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), they also give rise to a common law claim for a termination in violation of public policy. The same would hold true for terminations made in retaliation for an employee's opposition to, or complaints about, discrimination or harassment based on any of the aforementioned protected classifications. For example, an employee that complains of sexual harassment, and is then subjected to unwarranted work-related criticism, discipline, write-ups , or is fired, would have a claim for retaliation under FEHA as well as at common law. As a practical matter, however, the employee can recover more by suing under the statute than at common law; attorney's fees are not recoverable on public policy claims but may be awarded under FEHA.
It is also illegal to fire even an "at-will" employee for a reason that violates a fundamental public policy. In simple terms, a termination that violates public policy is one that implicates some state or federal statute, regulation, or constitutional provision. For example, if the employer directs a worker to violate any law, ordinance, regulation or statute, the employer cannot legally fire that employee for refusing to follow such a directive. Additionally, if the employer complains about what he/she reasonably perceives as a violation of the law, such as late or non-payment of wages, failure to pay overtime, filing a workers' compensation claim, or workplace safety issues, and is fired in retaliation, that would also constitute an actionable claim for wrongful termination.
Other terminations are unlawful because they are expressly prohibited by different statutes. Some of these include termination of workers based on sexual orientation or those employees that take Family and Medical Leave. Employees who take leave because they have a serious medical condition, or must care for a parent or child that has a condition, are protected by the law provided that they worked for the employer for more than one year, worked more than 1,250 hours during the previous year, and the company has more than fifty (50) employees that work within a seventy five (75) mile radius.
There are many other examples that are not listed here, and you should always speak with an attorney before waiving your rights to file a lawsuit. The general rule requires that the termination be more than just unfair to be illegal. In short, it usually matters little whether the specific reason given for your termination was fair or even true, unless you believe that the employer's real motivation for terminating you involved discrimination, retaliation, harassment or whistle blowing.
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