[COLUMN] Is unfair termination unlawful? 

Q: I worked in a company for over 10 years. A new supervisor and I do not get  along. Last week, the company terminated me without any explanation. I do not have any  disciplinary record. Can my employer just fire me without a good reason?

A: Yes, an employer may fire an employee without a good reason. Employment in  California is considered to be “at-will.” The employment-at-will doctrine states that either the  employer or the employee may end the employment relationship at any time.

An employee, therefore, can quit his or her job for any reason at any time. Likewise, the  employer may terminate the employment at any time, even if the employee’s job performance has  been excellent. The employer may also terminate employees for unfair reasons such as nepotism or  favoritism. The employer may even terminate the employee for no reason at all.

However, there are limitations to an employer’s freedom to terminate employees at will. One  of these limitations may arise when the employee has a contract with the employer who agrees that  the employee can only be fired for “good cause” or “just cause.” This may be true, for example, in  the collective bargaining agreement of employees who are union members.

A second, and more important, limitation is that an employer may not terminate employees  for an illegal reason. An illegal “reason” behind the termination will render the termination  “wrongful” or “unlawful.”

A termination is illegal or “wrongful” if it is based on discriminatory intent or is a violation of  public policy. Discriminatory intent pertains to discrimination based on such protected characteristics  as age, race, sex, color, religion, national origin, disability, medical condition, pregnancy, and even  union affiliation.

A termination is also illegal if it violates public policy. This means that the termination is  likely illegal if the employee was fired because:

1) The employee refused to commit an illegal act;

2) The employee performed a statutory obligation (e.g., the employee was absent in order to  serve in a jury);

3) The employee exercised a statutory right or privilege (e.g., the employee declined to take a polygraph examination); or

4) The employee reported a statutory violation for the public’s benefit (e.g., the employee  reported the employer’s illegal act to a government or law enforcement agency – this is also  known as “whistleblowing”).

A termination may also be wrongful if the employer was retaliating against the employee for  registering internal complaints regarding the safety of the employer’s products or for refusing to engage in nonconsensual sexual acts. Employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees  who opposed unlawful practices, filed complaints, testified, assisted, or participated in an  investigation, proceeding, or hearing conducted by a government agency.

Terminations can be difficult situations, particularly where employees see the employer as  unfair. Unfortunately, an employer’s unfair conduct may not necessarily be illegal. But if there is a  discriminatory or retaliatory motive behind the firing, the employee should consult with an  experienced employment attorney to determine available remedies under the law.

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.

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The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are  confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com. [For more than 25 years, C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. successfully recovered  wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top  Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, selected as Super Lawyer by the  Los Angeles Magazine for 11 years, and is a past Presidential Awardee for Outstanding Filipino Overseas.]

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