California and federal laws protect workers against wrongful termination, that is, termination that is against the law. A firing may be unjust, but if the action does not violate any law, it cannot be considered "wrongful."
In California, an employer cannot fire a worker who:
- Filed a discrimination claim or lawsuit
- Claimed sexual harassment
- Reported an employer for violating environmental or other laws
- Is pregnant
- Requests or takes family or medical leave under FMLA
- Is a member of a protected class because of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identification or other protected statuses
- Supports or testifies for a co-worker who has filed a claim or lawsuit against the employer
This sounds pretty straightforward. However, in reality, wrongful termination lawsuits are sometimes complex. A few examples of recent lawsuits and claims should give an idea of the wide variety to be found and illustrate the point that wrongful termination can happen to anyone.
Fired Employees Charge Violations of Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act
Two Los Angeles Goldman Sachs stockbrokers received $7.6 million in arbitration after claiming wrongful termination. Both brokers had exemplary employment records. They worked for Goldman Sachs from 1998 to 2007, and filed their claim in 2010. The claim was resolved during arbitration ordered by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). Goldman Sachs disputes the finding and says it may file a motion to vacate the award.
The men claimed that the company had harassed one of them for taking required military reserve training and for serving in Iraq, a violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act that protects members of the military from harassment. Both men were fired, even though only one of the team was in the reserves.
During the time the two brokers were at the brokerage firm, the company changed its compensation rules. The new rules required that a percentage of an employee's compensation be withheld as stock, and was to be accessed after employees had completed a required number of years of service, known as being "vested." The two men claimed that their stock was not paid upon termination.
The company says the men were fired for performance, even though until the member of the reserves went to Iraq the men had received excellent performance reviews and promotions.
Terminated Employee Charges Age Discrimination and Harassment
Zillow, the giant online database of houses for sale, has recently been on the receiving end of employee complaints and lawsuits. A recent wrongful termination lawsuit charges the company of harassment and age discrimination.
A 41-year-old woman alleges harassment from co-workers about her age, citing remarks about her not being able to keep up and being "Too old to close." She charges this occurred because she would not participate in what she referred to as a "frat house atmosphere."
She also charges that she was fired because she was hospitalized for a car crash-related back injury exacerbated by a work project that required all employees to remain seated for three hours. She was fired while in the hospital for "job abandonment." She is seeking actual and punitive damages, back pay, attorney's fees, lawsuit costs and interest for her wrongful termination.
Banking Giant Wells Fargo Hit With Several Wrongful Termination Lawsuits
Wells Fargo Bank has been the target of several wrongful termination lawsuits, including one alleging that the bank fired an employee for whistleblowing. The female employee charges that she was both fired and retaliated against for complaining against the "gaming" of consumer accounts. "Gaming" refers to opening accounts without customer approval, waiving fees to entice consumers to accept the unwanted account, exaggerating income on credit reports to win customer loyalty and other illegal activities.
The court documents, filed in Sacramento, state that once the plaintiff complained to the human resources department about the illegal practices, she was retaliated against and finally terminated. The former employee seeks compensatory damages as well as damages for emotional distress and punitive damages.
A similar case involves a Beach City loan officer who had worked at the bank for many years but refused to participate in illegal activity. He was fired despite being a top employee as reflected in his positive performance reviews.
Wells Fargo employee problems are not limited to California. In 2012, seven employees of a South Carolina branch bank were fired, allegedly for violating bank ethics rules. However, the employees claimed they were actually fired to hide drug use and sexual harassment by the branch manager. The employees were initially denied unemployment benefits after the bank responded that they were fired for cause. In each case, the state overturned the bank's denial of unemployment. The employees offered to settle the suit for $1.48 million. It was ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount in May 2014. Additional lawsuits involving the same incident have been filed by other employees.
State Bar of California Director Seeks Compensation for Wrongful Firing
Even lawyers can be wrongfully terminated. The former director of the State Bar of California has filed suit against the quasi-governmental organization for wrongful termination. He alleges that the organization fired him after he reported unethical behavior and wrongdoing by high officials within the organization. The lawsuit, which was filed in Los Angeles, seeks damages and a return to the job of Executive Director. The plaintiff also seeks an end to unethical and corrupt behavior in the organization.
The complaint alleges that the state bar's chief trial counsel altered case backlog reports to exaggerate the productivity of her office. The lawsuit also claims that the same employee also failed to pursue a type of fraud that targets immigrant communities in the state.
Additionally, the claim alleges that the internal investigation that began once the former director had identified improper conduct was slanted to benefit the employee, who filed a complaint against the director. The lead investigator had worked with and was a friend of a longtime board member, who had recommended hiring the investigator. However, the board member did not disclose the relationship when she made the recommendation to hire the investigator.
A new president of the bar association was heard saying that he was going to "do something" about the dismissed employee. However, the fired director had received stellar performance evaluations and raises, and had recently been reappointed to another three-year term.
As these examples show, wrongful termination can happen to anyone, from executives to front-line tellers. An employment lawyer can advise about filing a wrongful termination claim against an employer, whatever position you once held.