Few workers want to lose their job. Especially if they depend on their employment for financial stability. Jobs also contribute to a person’s sense of self. The sudden loss of a job can lead to both economic setbacks and mental health challenges.
Learning about an imminent firing or layoff can make workers feel desperate and scared. Oftentimes, they might hope to take legal action to prevent the loss of their job or obtain compensation for the lasting consequences of their job loss, yet that is not always possible.
Most terminations are not actionable
At-will employment statutes in California prevent workers from suing over the inconvenience that comes with a sudden loss of work. Employers have the right to terminate someone for any reason or no reason in particular. However, there are still some circumstances in which an employer may have some degree of liability over the decision to terminate a worker. Wrongful terminations can lead to litigation that can reinstate someone’s job at a company or award them financial compensation. When would a worker have reason to claim that their recent termination was wrongful?
Employers cannot fire or lay off workers to retaliate against them
It is illegal for businesses to punish workers for engaging in certain protected activities. Those protected activities include asking for unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). Workers also have protection from punitive employment decisions when reporting workplace harassment or attempting to organize with their co-workers. If a company lays off or fires a worker immediately after they engage in protected workplace activities, they could potentially raise a claim of retaliation against their employer.
Termination cannot relate to a protected characteristic
Someone’s performance on the job or their violation of company policies would justify a company terminating them. Someone developing a medical condition or reaching a certain age would not. Race, religion, medical condition and sex are among the protected characteristics that employers should not factor into decisions about whom to fire or lay off. Workers who believe that determination related to their protected characteristics may have the right to take legal action against their former employer.
Both permanent termination and potentially temporary layoffs may constitute wrongful termination and open a company up to civil liability. Setting aside emotional reactions and focusing on practical circumstances may help people more effectively establish whether their termination was wrongful as defined by law (and, therefore, actionable) or not.