San Francisco Wrongful Termination Lawyer

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What is Wrongful Termination?

Wrongful termination occurs when an employee's dismissal violates the law or the terms of a contract. In the state of California, employment is considered to be "at will", meaning that employers are free to terminate an employee for any reason (for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all). However, employers may not terminate an employee for an unlawful reason – doing so constitutes wrongful termination.

Wrongful termination can happen under various circumstances:

  • Breach of Contract: If an employee has a written, implied, or oral contract that outlines the conditions of their termination, and the employer does not abide by this contract, it can be considered wrongful termination.

  • Violation of State and Federal Labor Laws: California has strong laws against discrimination and harassment in the workplace. It's illegal to fire an employee based on protected characteristics – these include race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, and pregnancy. Additionally, it's illegal to fire an employee for reporting harassment or discrimination (retaliation), or for taking family or medical leave as provided under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and California Family Rights Act (CFRA).

  • Public Policy Violation: Similar to federal laws, in California, an employer cannot legally fire an employee for reasons that violate public policy. This includes terminating an employee for refusing to participate in illegal activity, for exercising a legal right (such as voting or taking jury duty), or for whistleblowing (reporting a violation of the law).

  • Constructive Dismissal: This occurs when an employer makes the work environment so intolerable (for example, through harassment or extreme pressure) that an employee feels they have no choice but to resign. In the state of California, such cases are considered a type of unfair dismissal and are treated as wrongful termination.

Who is Considered a “Protected Class”?

California provides protections to employees who are part of a protected class or a crossover of more than one protected class.  These include, for example, being terminated because of your:

The above list is certainly not exhaustive. As mentioned in the previous section, you can also be wrongfully terminated:

  • In retaliation for complaining about discriminatory or harassing conduct at work,

  • For whistleblowing (complaining about an unlawful practice within the workplace), or

  • For filing a claim with the CRD or any state agency protecting employee rights and safety.

Exceptions to At-Will Employment

Not all employment in California is considered “at-will.” Types of employment that are not considered “at-will” include:

  • Public-sector employees, who are often protected by civil service laws and/or by a "memorandum of understanding" between their union and the employing agency. These documents typically cover discipline and termination, providing increased job security and specific procedures that must be followed prior to termination.

  • Employees represented by unions and covered by a collective bargaining agreement. These agreements typically contain a "just cause" standard for termination, meaning the employer must have a “legitimate and substantial” reason to terminate an employee, as defined in the agreement.

  • Employees with written employment contracts – these are typically executives. Such contracts frequently require "good cause" for termination, limiting the employer's ability to terminate the employee without a valid, contractually agreed-upon reason.

  • Employees whose employers have overridden the presumption of at-will employment through their actions or statements. This can occur if an employer has made verbal or written assurances of continued employment or set forth policies that imply that termination will only occur under certain conditions, thus creating an implied contract.

Examples of Wrongful Termination

Not sure if you've been wrongfully terminated? Here are some examples of scenarios in which an employee would be unlawfully terminated:

  • Firing After a Whistleblower Complaint: An employee reports illegal activities of their employer (such as accounting fraud) and is then fired as a result.

  • Termination Due to Medical Leave: An employee takes a medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and is fired while on leave or shortly after returning.

  • Dismissal for Refusing to Perform Illegal Acts: An employee is asked to engage in illegal activities (e.g., dumping toxic waste illegally) and is fired for refusing to do so.

  • Firing Based on Age: An older employee is consistently performing well but is replaced by a younger, less experienced employee without a valid reason.

  • Retaliation Against Union Members: An employee joins a union or participates in union activities, leading to their termination.

  • Termination Due to Pregnancy: An employee reveals they are pregnant and is subsequently fired under the pretext of performance issues, even though their performance evaluations were previously positive.

  • Firing After Filing a Sexual Harassment Complaint: An employee reports sexual harassment and is then terminated under vague or manufactured performance-related reasons.

  • Termination for Taking Legally-Protected Leave: An employee takes time off work for jury duty or military service and is fired for their absence.

Contact an Experienced Wrongful Termination Attorney in San Francisco

It can be difficult to know whether your employer has terminated you for legitimate reasons or for illegal ones. Based on The Sampath Law Firm's extensive experience in employment law, we can advise you regarding whether your termination was unlawful or not and help you better understand your rights and options.

The Sampath Law Firm represents employees in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area – our team can help you determine whether you were the victim of a wrongful termination. Contact us today for a consultation by filling out our online form or calling us at (415) 231-5854.

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