Understanding At-Will Employment in California

Job applicants and employees in California often hear — and maybe fear — the term “at-will employment.” This is generally accepted to mean, “I can be fired for no reason.” But is this true? Are employers free to uproot employees’ lives for seemingly frivolous reasons like they don’t like your politics or sexual orientation?

Though California recognizes at-will employment, which means either the employer or employee can terminate employment for virtually any reason at any time, there are some important limitations and exceptions to what employers can do.

If you’ve been terminated in Stockton, Temecula, Costa Mesa, or any of the surrounding areas in California, and you think the termination was wrongful, contact the employment law attorneys at Robinson Bradford LLP. We will listen to your story, investigate every last detail, and fight for your rights as an employee under state and federal law.

Understanding Employment Law in California

The California Labor Code Section 2922 states, “any employment, having no specified term, may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other. Employment for a specified term means employment for a period greater than one month.

This section indicates that, in the absence of an agreement on the length of employment, both employer and employee are free to end the employment at any time for any reason by giving “notice to the other.”

While this is generally true, both federal and state laws along with several key court decisions have carved out limitations to employers and exceptions for employees who have been terminated.

For example, say Mary takes a job with ABC Company with the full intention of working there with a commitment to stay, but one month later, a better offer comes along. She accepts the new job offer, gives notice to her employer, and leaves ABC Company. However, executives at ABC Company are furious that they now have to find and hire someone new and train that person for the position — all at a huge cost to the company. The unfortunate reality for ABC Company is that there really isn’t anything they can do.

Now, if we put the shoe on the other foot, let’s imagine that ABC Company hires Mary, only to find a better, more qualified candidate a month later. The company chooses to terminate Mary and hire the more qualified candidate. Is this legal under at-will employment?

On the surface, yes, it could be. However, Mary may have a few options for legal recourse, including potentially filing for wrongful termination. Let’s explore what can lead to some of those options.

Exceptions to
At-will Employment

As mentioned above, there are a number of different circumstances that provide limitations to employers and exceptions for employees when it comes to terminating employment. Some of the most common examples include the following:

Implied Contracts

One of the first legal defenses that Mary might employ is what is called the concept of an implied contract. An implied contract can arise if the employer, or one of its supervisors, gives Joan reassurances that her job is safe and they intend to keep her for the long term.

Employers can help blunt, or prevent, this argument by requiring new employees to sign at-will employment agreements, and include at-will wording in their employee handbooks and even job applications.

Implied Covenant of
Good Faith & Fair Dealing

Another defense against termination under at-will employment is called the Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing. This concept is similar to the implied contract. California Civil Jury Instructions (2020) state: “This implied promise means that neither the employer nor the employee will do anything to unfairly interfere with the right of the other to receive the benefits of the employment relationship. Good faith means honesty of purpose without any intention to mislead or to take unfair advantage of another.”

Again, a lot here would hinge upon what Mary’s employers promised her, and in general, good faith and fair dealing arguments are most applicable for someone employed longer than one month, as Mary was. Now, had she worked six or nine months and her employer’s actions could be compared to how other employees were treated, the argument might be on more solid grounds, but it is still applicable.

Conduct Related to Public Policy

Another defense in California comes when the termination results from Mary’s refusal to violate public policy or voluntarily act to uphold public policy. Public policy includes laws, regulations, constitutional provisions, and mandatory ethical rules.

If Mary, for instance, reports an antitrust violation to the authorities and she is then terminated, she would be able to employ the public policy argument that her discharge was wrongful. Likewise, if she refused the sexual advances of a supervisor and was then terminated, she could rely on public policy and its protections.

Other Factors to Consider

Employees who work under collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are not subject to at-will employment, but instead to the terms of their CBA. Terminating someone under a CBA would generally require proof of wrongdoing, continued poor performance, or other causes to warrant a termination.

Under guidelines of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), employers also cannot terminate employees who engage in union-organizing activities, so long as their activities follow windows carved out in the NLRA.

Even if the employment agreement is clearly at will, employers still cannot violate any employee rights under various federal and state laws. This means they cannot discriminate based on a number of factors, including age, pregnancy status, national origin, race, religion or creed, disability status, and other protected categories. They also cannot terminate whistleblowers under Sarbanes-Oxley and other legal statutes.

How Robinson
Bradford LLP Can Help

As you can see, though employers and employees can, in many cases, terminate employment at any time for any reason at all, matters are not always cut and dry. Terminated employees can attempt to show that they were made long-term promises that were not kept, thus arguing there was an implied contract, if not an express or written contract. 

Employees can also question the good faith and fair dealing of the employer, especially if they’ve been on the job long enough to compare their situation with other employees and how they’ve been treated.

If you feel you’ve been wrongfully terminated in Temecula, Costa Mesa, Stockton, or in any of the nearby communities, call or reach out to the employment law attorneys at Robinson Bradford LLP. We will do everything we can to investigate your case and protect your rights under the law.


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