What Constitutes Wrongful Termination in California

Losing a job can be a devastating experience, especially if you believe your termination was unfair. Understanding what constitutes wrongful termination in California is crucial in determining whether your rights were violated and what steps you can take next. At Boucher LLP, we are here to provide you with the information and support you need during this challenging time.

Understanding Wrongful Termination

Wrongful termination occurs when an employer fires an employee for illegal reasons. While California is an “at-will” employment state—employers can generally terminate employees for any reason or no reason—there are critical exceptions to this rule. Even in an at-will employment state, federal and state laws prohibit your termination for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons.

Key Laws and Statutes

Several federal and California state laws protect employees from wrongful termination, including:

It is essential to work with an experienced attorney to help you understand which laws might apply to your specific case based on the circumstances of your termination. 

What Qualifies as Wrongful Termination?

Wrongful termination can occur under several circumstances. Here are some examples of wrongful termination that can help you understand what qualifies as wrongful termination.


One of the most common grounds for wrongful termination is discrimination. If an employer fired you because of your race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, or disability, this could qualify as wrongful termination. For example, if an older employee is terminated and replaced with a significantly younger individual without a valid reason, this could indicate age discrimination. Similarly, suppose an employee is fired shortly after revealing a disability or pregnancy. In that case, it may be a case of discrimination under the ADA or the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA).


The law prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who exercise their legal rights. This includes reporting workplace safety violations, filing complaints about discrimination or harassment, or participating in an investigation. For instance, if your employer fires you after reporting unsafe working conditions to OSHA, this could be considered retaliation. Similarly, if you file a sexual harassment complaint and face termination, this may be retaliation under Title VII.

Violation of Public Policy

Termination that violates public policy is also considered wrongful. This includes firing an employee for refusing to engage in illegal activities, taking time off to vote or serve on a jury, or taking family or medical leave under the FMLA. For instance, if an employer fires you for refusing to falsify documents or participate in illegal activities, it would violate public policy. Similarly, termination for taking legally protected leave for medical reasons or family emergencies falls under this category.

Breach of Contract

If you have an employment contract specifying your employment terms, including grounds for termination, and your employer violates them, it may constitute wrongful termination. Contracts can be explicit, in written form, or implied, based on company policies, practices, or verbal agreements. For example, if your contract states you can only be fired for cause and you are subsequently terminated without a valid reason, this could be a breach of contract. Additionally, an employer violating a collective bargaining agreement with a union can be grounds for wrongful termination.

Constructive Discharge

Constructive discharge occurs when an employer creates intolerable working conditions that force an employee to resign. These conditions can include harassment, discrimination, or significant changes in job duties intended to compel an employee to quit. For instance, if an employee faces constant harassment and the employer fails to address the issue, leading the employee to resign, it could be considered constructive discharge. Similarly, if your employer drastically changes your job responsibilities to make your position untenable, it might be a case of constructive discharge.

Whistleblowing Protections

Employees who report illegal activities or safety violations have protection under various whistleblower laws. If you were terminated for exposing illegal practices or reporting regulatory violations, this could qualify as wrongful termination. For example, if your employer fired you for reporting financial fraud within your company, you might be protected under federal whistleblower laws, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Appropriate Reasons for Termination

It is important to differentiate between wrongful termination and legitimate reasons for termination. Employers have the right to terminate employees for valid reasons such as:

  • Poor job performance, 
  • Violation of company policies, 
  • Economic downturns,
  • Company restructuring, or 
  • Attendance issues.

These reasons make sense to let someone go and are not grounds for wrongful termination. 

Process for Bringing a Claim for Wrongful Termination in California

If you believe you have experienced what falls under wrongful termination, taking the proper steps is crucial to protect your rights and build a strong case. Here is an expanded guide on bringing a claim for wrongful termination in California.

Document Everything 

Begin by meticulously documenting all relevant details related to your employment and termination. Documentation includes keeping copies of your employment contract, performance reviews, emails, memos, and any other correspondence that might support your claim. Note any conversations or incidents that may indicate wrongful termination, including dates, times, and witnesses. Detailed records are essential in proving your case.

File a Complaint

If your termination involves discrimination, harassment, or retaliation, you must file a complaint with the appropriate government agency before pursuing a lawsuit. In California, this typically means filing with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Filing a complaint initiates an investigation by these agencies into your claims. You must file within specific time limits: typically within 1 year of the wrongful termination for DFEH claims and within 300 days for EEOC claims.

Consult with an Attorney

Navigating wrongful termination laws can be complex, so consulting an experienced employment attorney is highly recommended. An attorney can provide valuable guidance on whether you have a strong case, the best strategy for proceeding, and the potential compensation you might be entitled to. They can also help you understand the nuances of employment law and ensure you meet all legal deadlines.

File a Lawsuit

It is essential to understand what qualifies for a wrongful termination lawsuit. If administrative agencies cannot resolve the issue, or you receive a “right to sue” notice from the DFEH or EEOC, you may need to file a wrongful termination lawsuit in civil court. Your attorney will help you draft and file the complaint, which outlines your allegations and the legal basis for your claim. The litigation process includes several stages, including discovery (where both parties exchange evidence), pre-trial motions, settlement discussions, and potentially a trial. Throughout this process, your attorney will represent your interests to achieve the best possible outcome.

Reach Out to Boucher LLP

Understanding what constitutes wrongful termination can be complex, but you do not have to navigate it alone. If you believe you have experienced wrongful termination, it is important to seek legal advice to understand your rights and options. At Boucher LLP, we are dedicated to fighting for fair treatment in the workplace and ensuring that employees receive the justice they deserve. Contact us today to schedule a consultation and learn more about how we can assist you.