Most workers in California have “at-will” employment status. This means the worker can quit the job at any time and the employer can, for the most part, terminate the employment at any time for any reason.
However, there are important exceptions to this rule. For instance, employers cannot legally fire employees if their reason for doing so is in violation of state and federal anti-discrimination laws. Employers are also constrained by whistleblower protection laws.
A worker who is fired in violation of one of these laws may be able to make a claim of wrongful termination, but doing so is not always easy. One of the biggest hurdles is proving that the employer’s motive for the firing was in violation of the law, and not for some legitimate business reason.
Forcing an employee to quit
Some employers try to conceal their discriminatory intentions by creating working conditions that are so bad that the worker has little choice but to quit. Because the employee quit and was not fired, the employer may argue in their defense that the termination did not violate any laws.
In some cases, workers have been able to fight back against this type of argument by claiming that they faced a “constructive dismissal.”
Also known as “constructive discharge,” this type of claim can be difficult to prove. Under California law, the worker must show that:
- Working conditions were so extremely bad that a reasonable employee under the same or similar circumstances would have resigned from the job.
- The employer knew that the conditions were intolerable or actually intended to force the worker to resign.
In these cases, the worker must show that the conditions were egregious, and not merely unpleasant. However, they don’t have to show that the conditions themselves were necessarily illegal or dangerous.
For instance, in a recent California case, a worker argued a constructive dismissal claim after her former employer forced her to do work that was beyond her pay grade.
The woman worked at a news organization where she was offered a senior role. According to her lawsuit, her employer revoked the promotion while she was still in management training, after she discussed her experiences with sexual discrimination.
She claims that, despite the fact that she remained in the junior position, she was ordered to do high-level work more in keeping with the higher pay and status of the senior position. She argued that the conditions were so extreme that she was forced to quit, and that a reasonable person would have made the same decision as her.
In other words, she argued that her resignation amounted to a constructive dismissal.
The case has yet to be decided, but a California court ruled that the plaintiff’s argument has merit and the case can proceed.
Every wrongful termination case is different. People who feel they were wrongfully fired can talk to experienced attorneys to learn how the law might apply to the unique set of facts involved in their case.