What does it mean to be an “at-will” employee?
In California, employment is presumed to be “at will,” which simply means that, for most workers, no contract of employment exists to guarantee continued employment. Just as most employers can terminate their employees “at will” (i.e., with no prior notice of any kind), most employees can terminate their relationship with their employers without giving any advance notice.
Are there exceptions to the general rule of at-will employment in California?
Yes. There are several exceptions to at-will employment. Generally, these exceptions apply in situations concerning:
- Government agencies and other public employers
- Union members
- Discriminatory terminations of employment
- Term employment contracts
Probably the most commonly-litigated claims in which the defense of at-will employment is raised involve allegations of discrimination and/or harassment. In these cases, terminated workers generally claim that, while an at-will relationship may have existed, the employer violated the law when it allegedly fired or harassed the employee based on gender, age, disability, or upon other protected bases.
What damages are recoverable in a wrongful termination case?
The damages that can be recovered in a wrongful termination case can vary tremendously, depending on such things as the underlying reason for the termination, the claims alleged in the lawsuit and the forum in which the lawsuit is pursued. In some situations, all of the following are recoverable:
- Back pay
- Future wages
- Damages for emotional distress
- Recovery for expenses relating to medical and/or psychological treatment
In some circumstances, punitive damages, costs and even attorneys’ fees are also recoverable. The decision to have your claims adjudicated in an administrative forum such as before the Department of Fair Employment and Housing or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (as opposed to a civil action in a state or federal court) should be made only after talking to experienced legal counsel. Contact us to discuss your situation.
This information is for illustrative and educational purposes only. It should not be construed as legal advice, the establishment of an attorney-client relationship, or as indicative of a particular outcome regarding any legal issue you might have.