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What You Need to Know About At-Will Employment & Wrongful Termination

"My employer didn't even tell me why I was fired." "My employer lied about why I was fired." "I was fired for no reason." "I was fired without any warning." 

Sound familiar? If this has happened to you, you may wonder whether this is allowed. Is your employer required to follow a fair procedure in terminating you? Do they have to be honest with you about why they're firing you? These are common questions when an employee faces the trauma of being unexpectedly or unfairly fired. 

The answer is not as straightforward as one might think. While it is technically legal to fire you for a false reason, no reason, or without warning, an employer cannot use at-will employment to mask illegal discrimination or retaliation. Sometimes, an employer fires someone without warning for good reason when they engage in serious misconduct or the employer decides to reorganize, among other things. This can be perfectly legal. However, sometimes employers fail to follow their own procedures and refuse to discuss their reasons for termination because they know the actual reason is illegal. 

How do you tell which of these situations applies to you? Here's a basic roadmap. 

This post is part of our Employment Law 101 series. Learn more here to understand your fundamental rights.  

What Does At-Will Employment Mean?

Like most states, California considers most employees “at-will.” Unless you have an employment contract or union contract that alters the at-will relationship, you are an at-will employee. This means that either the employee or employer can end the employment relationship “at will.”

At-will employment means that your employer does not need “cause” to fire you. That means they do not need to show you engaged in any serious misconduct. You may be fired because you do not get along with your boss. Your employer can fire you because you are late too much. Your employer can fire you because they want to eliminate your position. Employers are not legally required to have a reason to fire employees. Trivial reasons may be legal. Silly and ill-advised reasons can also be legal. 

That said, employers often hide behind “at-will” employment when wrongfully terminating an employee. At-will employment is not a license to discriminate or fire workers for illegal reasons. 

Illegal reasons giving rise to a claim for wrongful termination include: (1) your membership in any protected class; (2) your association with any member of a protected class; (3) any complaints of unlawful conduct at your employer, including violations of workplace safety laws; (4) any complaints of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation in your workplace; (5) your use or intended use of job-protected maternity, family care, or medical leave; and (6) any complaints of unpaid wages or violations of the Equal Pay Act

FAQs Regarding Wrongful Termination

Can My Employer Fire Me Without a Written Warning?

Employers are not required to provide written warning before they fire an employee. In some situations, this makes sense. If an employee engages in serious misconduct, they may be fired immediately and without warning. Similarly, if the employer is reorganizing or engaging in layoffs, it may not have time to provide warnings and sometimes may fire people who are excellent employees. 

If you think you were fired for an illegal reason, your employer's failure to follow their standard disciplinary procedures can be evidence of discriminatory intent. For example, if the employee handbook lists a multi-step disciplinary process, one wonders why an employer abandoned this process in firing an employee for a minor infraction. In this situation, the employer's failure to follow its own procedures can be evidence of wrongful termination. 

Can My Employer Fire Me for No Reason?

Employers are not required to have a reason for terminating employees. However, refusing to provide a reason for termination may be an attempt to cover up illegal discrimination or retaliation. 

If an employer refused to explain why you were being terminated, ask yourself why your employer is not providing a reason. You may have a gut sense about why you were fired. If the reason is illegal, an expert employment lawyer will explore how to prove up the actual reason for your termination. 

Employers often refuse to explain why you were fired when they know the reason is a bad or illegal reason. Few employers will say, “I just don’t like working with pregnant women because they’re unreliable,” or “your medical leave was annoying so we’re firing you,” even if that is what they actually think. This would be admitting to discrimination. Instead of admitting discrimination, employers sometimes refuse to provide a reason to say you are being fired because you are an at-will employee.

Can My Employer Lie About Why I’m Being Fired?

An employer is allowed to lie about why an employee is terminated. However, the law is clear that lying about why an employee was fired can be evidence of “pretext,” meaning that the employer is hiding the real reason for the termination. Lying itself may not be illegal, but it can be evidence that your termination was motivated by an illegal rationale. Otherwise, why not tell the truth?

We often prove wrongful termination by showing that your employer is not telling the truth about why you were fired. We show that employers are lying about why you were fired by showing that others were treated better than you, that your employer’s reason makes no sense, or that there is a pattern of treating employees in your protected class (e.g., women, minorities, workers with disabilities) worse than other workers, among other things.

Talk to an Experienced Wrongful Termination Attorney

If you think you may have been wrongfully terminated, it's critical that you know your rights. Our experienced wrongful termination attorneys are here for free consultations and can talk you through your situation. Few things in life are more stressful than losing your job and livelihood. We are passionate about helping people who have been wrongfully terminated.

If you may have been wrongfully terminated, do not hesitate to contact us today through our website or give us a call at (213) 214-3757 to schedule a free consultation.

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