Losing a job is one of the major stressors in life. According to one social readjustment rating scale, the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory, being fired from a job comes in at No. 8 on the scale, behind death of a spouse, divorce, separation, going to jail, death of family or friends, suffering a major injury or illness or getting married.
California workers, except those under contract, are at-will employees subject to termination for any reason, or no reason at all. But the law protects those workers who were wrongfully terminated based on discrimination over the workers' race, religion, age and any other categories that are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination Act or Title VII.
Is it fair to fire employees?
Life isn't fair. As adults, we realize this nearly every day, as events can appear to conspire against us when in fact it simply random bad luck, e.g., standing at that bus stop when the out-of-control driver careens around the corner. Similarly, many employees may feel that they were unfairly fired, but that doesn't make their terminations illegal. Business owners may even be skirting some ethical edges in firing workers without their actions rising to the level of violations of the law.
What makes a termination wrongful?
As previously noted, the law protects certain categories of workers from being discriminated against for solely those reasons on the job. There are others, as well, such as firing whistleblowers who are retaliated against for shining light on a company's unethical or illegal business practices. Also, in most instances, companies cannot fire workers for exercising their constitutionally-protected rights of free speed or for serving on a jury or voting.
Further caveats exist. If the company employing you details its hiring and firing practices in their policies and procedures, hiring manuals or employment contracts, it cannot then violate these practices in the termination of employees.
The complexities of a wrongful termination case
If it seems that these types of cases could be complicated to sort out for litigation purposes, you are correct. Even some of the cases in other states' highest courts have been downright confusing, such as the ruling from the Iowa Supreme Court back in 2012. The judges ruled that a dentist was not in violation of their state's discrimination laws in his firing of a female staffer to whom he was attracted because he opted to protect his marriage and remove temptation.
What you can do to protect yourself
Gathering sufficient documentation to support allegations of wrongful termination is crucial. Any interoffice memos, meeting notes, evaluations, witness statements and other proof of intent can bolster your case to a judge or jury later. You can make or break a case with documentation, or the lack thereof.
If you are still unsure whether or not your termination was lawful or not, you can seek a legal opinion on the merits of your case in order to know if or how to proceed.