What You Need to Know About At-Will Employment & Wrongful Termination
| Read Time: 7 minutes | Employment Law 101

At King & Siegel LLP, we have helped hundreds of workers hold employers accountable through legal actions. If you think you were wrongfully terminated, we are here for you. Call us today at 213-465-4802 to find out how we can help!

What exactly does it mean to be fired with or without cause? Being fired without cause means an employer is letting an employee go, but not because of serious workplace misconduct. Conversely, being fired with cause means the employee committed a serious breach of conduct in their workplace, which led to their termination.

“My employer didn’t even tell me why I was fired.” “My employer lied about why I was fired.” “I got fired from my job for no reason.” “I was fired without any warning.”

Sound familiar? If this has happened to you, you may wonder, Can an employer fire you for no reason? 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. An employer may fire you because you do not get along with your boss. Your employer can fire you because you are frequently late. 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. Furthermore, an employer does not need to tell you why they fired you or provide a specific reason for your termination unless a contractual agreement or a particular provision in your employment contract requires such disclosure.

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, but are not limited to:

Speaking with an experienced California employment lawyer will help you determine whether your termination aligns with California law. An employment attorney can provide personalized guidance and help you explore available legal options, ensuring that your employer treats you fairly and, when they don’t, that you receive appropriate justice and remedies.

How Does Wrongful Termination Differ from Legal Termination?

Wrongful termination denotes the illegal termination of an employee’s employment, while legal termination complies with California’s applicable laws and regulations.

Here are some essential differences between the two.

Illegal vs. Legal Termination

When an employer fires an employee in violation of state or federal laws, public policy, or the terms of an employment contract, it is an unlawful termination. This can include termination based on discrimination, retaliation, or violating protected rights. Legal termination, on the other hand, follows proper procedures and is grounded in reasons the law recognizes, such as poor performance, misconduct, being overstaffed, or economic reasons, to name just a few.


Employees who believe they were unlawfully terminated may be entitled to legal remedies. For example, they can file a complaint with government agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). They may also be able to pursue a lawsuit against their employer, seeking remedies such as reinstatement, back pay, or compensatory damages. In legal termination cases, where the termination is lawful, the employee cannot legally challenge the termination.

Burden of Proof

In a wrongful termination case, the burden of proof, or a party’s obligation to prove the truth or validity of a particular fact or issue in dispute, rests with the employee. In other words, it is up to the employee to prove that the termination was unlawful. This means they must prove that their employer targeted the employee based on discriminatory or retaliatory motives or violated their protected rights. In a legal termination, neither the employee nor the employer has a burden of proof since the employer complied with applicable laws and can demonstrate valid reasons for the termination.

It’s essential to consult with an employment attorney to determine whether your termination is consistent with California law. A skilled Los Angeles wrongful termination lawyer can provide tailored guidance based on your claim’s unique facts and help you navigate the legal options available.

What Do I Do If I Think My Employer Unlawfully Terminated Me?

Here are some examples of unlawful firings:

  • Gabriel has a disability and requests reasonable accommodations from his employer to perform his job duties. Instead of providing the accommodations, his employer terminates his employment, claiming that providing accommodations poses an undue hardship. Gabriel consults with an employment attorney and discovers his employer failed to engage in the interactive process before unlawfully terminating him based on his disability.
  • Maria and her employer have a written employment contract with specific termination procedures. Her employer subsequently fires her without following the guidelines included in the contract. She consults with an employment attorney and discovers she has a legal action against her former employer for wrongful termination based on breach of contract.
  • Yuki is a pregnant employee who received positive performance reviews throughout her pregnancy. However, just weeks before her scheduled maternity leave, her employer terminates her without a valid explanation. She suspects pregnancy discrimination and contacts an employment attorney. Together, they file a complaint with the DFEH, alleging wrongful termination based on pregnancy discrimination.
  • Jackson works for a manufacturing company and reports safety violations to the appropriate regulatory agencies. Shortly after, his employer suddenly terminates him. Jackson seeks legal representation, discovers his employer retaliated against him for reporting, and files a wrongful termination lawsuit against his employer for violating his whistleblower rights.
  • Sarah is a 55-year-old employee with an exemplary work record. After her employer suddenly terminates her without any prior performance issues, she discovers her replacement is a much younger employee. Suspecting age discrimination, Sarah consults with an employment attorney. Together they file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) for wrongful termination based on age discrimination.

What Steps Can I Take If I Think My Employer Unlawfully Terminated Me?

If you believe that your employer unlawfully terminated your employment in California, there are several steps you can take:

  • Gather evidence—collect any documentation, emails, performance evaluations, or other relevant records supporting your wrongful termination claim. 
  • Consult with an employment attorney—schedule a consultation with an experienced employment attorney specializing in California wrongful termination cases. They will evaluate your claim’s details, advise you on your rights, and guide you through the legal process.
  • Understand your rights—familiarize yourself with California’s employment laws and regulations. This will help you better understand whether your employer violated any laws or regulations in terminating your employment.
  • File a complaint—depending on your employment claim, you may need to file a complaint with the appropriate government agency. For example, if you believe your employer fired you for discriminatory reasons, you can file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
  • Preserve your rights—some claims have specific time limits, so be mindful of them and meet all deadlines for filing complaints or initiating legal action.
  • Retaliation protection—be sure you understand which legally protected activities, such as filing a complaint or participating in an investigation, are protected. Employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees engaging in these actions.

Remember, each case is unique, and your specific steps may vary based on your circumstances. It is crucial to consult with an employment attorney who understands California employment law and can walk you through your claim and all appropriate legal options.

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. Employees who engage in serious misconduct may be fired immediately and without warning. Similarly, if the employer is reorganizing or engaging in layoffs, it may not have time to provide notification 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 an Employer Fire You for No Reason?

The answer to “Can a job fire you for no reason?” is yes. 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 employment lawyer in LA will explore how to prove the actual reason for your termination.

Employers often refuse to explain why you were fired when they know the reason is bad or illegal. 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 believe your employer wrongfully terminated, do not hesitate to contact us today through our website or give us a call at 213-465-4802 to schedule a free consultation.

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Julian Burns King graduated with honors from Harvard Law School and founded King & Siegel in 2018. As head of the Firm’s discrimination and harassment practice areas, she champions the rights of working parents and victims of workplace discrimination and harassment. She has been recognized as a “Rising Star” by Super Lawyers annually since 2018 and has recovered tens of millions of dollars on behalf of her clients.

Read More Articles by Julian Burns King