At-Will Employment in California: What Is It?

Tearing contractCan California employers fire their employees for no reason? The answer might surprise you: generally, yes, they can! California follows what is known as the “at-will” employment doctrine. This means that, unless an exception applies, a California employer can fire an employee for no reason or even for no good reason, as long as the reason is not illegal.

What Is the At-Will Employment Doctrine?

Nearly all states follow the at-will employment doctrine. California’s has been codified as a law: “An employment, having no specified term, may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other. Employment for a specified term means an employment for a period of greater than one month.” Cal. Labor Code § 2922.

Consider an example of the harsh reality of the at-will doctrine, when it applies. Assume you were hired to perform a job that was expected to last for more than one month. You could be fired for the following reasons:

  • Your employer did not like your car;
  • Your employer thought you should have taken his daughter to dinner; or
  • Your employer was upset that you didn’t bring a donut to cheer him up.

Exceptions to the At-Will Employment Doctrine

There are two major exceptions to the rule of at-will employment: (1) the law of contracts and the duty of good faith and fair dealing, and (2) wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.

At-will employment is avoided when the employer and employee have an express or implied contract for employment. Probably the most widespread example of this is a collective bargaining agreement. However, written individual contracts or even employee handbooks can create a reasonable expectation to an employee that she has a right to continue to work. Even a supervisor’s oral promise that an employee may stay on can create an enforceable entitlement to continued employment.

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When a court finds that there is a contract, the duty of good faith and fair dealing kicks in. This means that neither party to a contract may act unfairly to deny the other the benefits of the contract. In the employment arena, this duty may require that an employer have just cause before firing an employee.

The second exception to California’s at-will doctrine is known as wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. In other words, firing the employee contravenes some public policy that is worth protecting; in fact, the policy is so important that it is recognized in a well-established way, such as in the state’s constitution or laws. There are many public policies in California that, if violated, can lead to a claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. Here are a few:

  • The right to be free from discrimination and harassment;
  • The right to refuse to violate an unlawful order or directive;
  • The right to file certain types of claims (workers’ compensation, for example); and
  • The right to lactation accommodation.

When an employee claims to have been fired in violation of a substantial or fundamental public policy, this is sometimes known as a “Tameny claim,” after the case that first recognized the right in 1980: Tameny v. Atlantic Richfield Company. If you are not sure whether the reason you were fired was legal, consult an experienced California employment lawyer. Contact Labor Law Office, APC today.

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Labor Law Office, APC

2740 Fulton Avenue, Suite 220
Sacramento, CA 95821

Office: (916) 446-4502
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2017-12-13T21:46:35+00:00 January 27th, 2016|General Labor Law|