Wrongful Termination, At-Will Employment, What Does It All Mean?

Written by Galen T. Shimoda

Just because you are terminated does not necessarily mean that you have been “wrongfully terminated.” California is an at-will state. This means that an employee can be fired at-will. Conversely, an employee can leave his or her job at-will without any consequences. The exception to this rule is if an employee and the employer enter into a written or oral agreement, binding the employment for a period of time and allowing separation with cause.

Take, for example, Company A that spends thousands of dollars to train one of its employees, John. Well, John has spent less than one year with the company but the company looks to John as being an investment for the company in the future. One day, John is approached by Company B. Company B offers John a similar position at three times his salary. All John has to do to accept is to quit Company A, without any notice, and start with Company B tomorrow. If he passes on this offer, Company B will seek another candidate. John is an at-will employee. He can choose to leave Company A without any consequences and despite the money spent on his training and investment. Is this fair to Company A? It is probably not fair, but it is legal.

The same situation applies to an employee who is fired even after 20 years invested in the company. If the employee is at-will, then the company can choose to move on without consequence. So what is “wrongful termination”? It is a legal term that applies to situations when a termination violates a public policy of this State or similar regulation or federal law.

For example, if Company B fires John because John is disabled or because he is Hispanic, then that would be an illegal or wrongful termination. California has a public policy that prevents discrimination against those who are disabled or because of one’s race. This is just one example of many in which a termination can violate a public policy. Other examples include termination or retaliation for asking for wages you reasonably believe to be due; contacting a regulatory agency (such as OSHA) and making a complaint; testifying in a civil or criminal action; or refusing to engage in illegal conduct such as fraud.

It is important to speak with an attorney if you feel that you have been terminated in violation of a public policy. Sometimes just because you feel that your termination is “unfair,” does not mean it is “illegal.” However, this is where a labor attorney is important and can evaluate your case properly. If you have such an inquiry, please contact our office.

The Shimoda Law Corp. legal articles should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents of these articles are intended for general information purposes only, and you are urged to consult a lawyer concerning your own situation and any specific legal questions you may have.

Back to Articles