You may know that California, like all other states, is an at-will employment state. This means that you can fire an employee whether you have good reason or not. However, this does not mean it is any easier to let someone go without feeling nervous about the ramifications. Specifically, you may worry that your former employee will file a wrongful termination lawsuit against you.
If you are facing this situation now, you may be going over and over the day you fired this person trying to remember if you made a mistake. However, you may need to look back even further. In fact, protecting yourself from wrongful termination claims is something you should have in mind from the moment you hire someone.
The limits of a wrongful termination claim
You may already use employee contracts during the hiring process, but does your contract include information about “at will” employment? If so, this may be an important factor in your defense. However, perhaps no other process can benefit you more than keeping detailed employment records for the duration of an employee’s tenure. Recording any performance issues, disciplinary actions or other negative encounters may provide solid justification for termination. Nevertheless, your former employee may accuse you of terminating him or her for any of the following illegal reasons or others:
- In retaliation for taking lawful actions, such as asking for a raise, claiming worker’s compensation or taking advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act
- As punishment for reporting unsafe or illegal working conditions or workplace activities
- Because the employee refused to participate in illegal activities
- In violation of federal or state discrimination laws, such as firing an employee because of his or her race, religion, disability or sexual orientation
- In violation of the terms of an employment contract
Sometimes employees incorrectly believe that wrongful termination simply means you did not have a good reason to fire them. However, this is not the legal definition of the term. Fortunately, there are limited circumstances under which an employee can bring a lawsuit after being fired. You can take steps to avoid those listed above, and you may consider offering a severance package in exchange for an employee’s agreement to forfeit the right to sue.
When you do find yourself facing legal matters concerning the termination of an employee, you may have a great deal at stake. You would be wise to seek legal advice as soon as possible by reaching out to a skilled attorney.