Employees can be fired for no reason whatsoever and at any time in most cases. Your supervisor could have praised you repeatedly to others or upper management and then had you promptly fired without warning. If you do not have an employment contract, written or oral, which states or implies you can only be fired for cause, then you are an “at-will” employee. It is when you are fired on the basis of discrimination or for reporting illegal or unsafe practices, then your employer may have violated state or federal laws. If this happened in your case, your employer or company will offer a number of excuses since it has to protect itself from potential litigation. Some of these may be:
- Mistreatment of other employees
- Because of restructuring, your job has been eliminated
- Poor performance
- Violation of no-theft policy
- Violation of hate-speech policy or sexual harassment
- You can no longer perform the physical requirements of the job
- The company is laying off workers for financial reasons
Regardless if you are an “at-will” employee or one under contract that specifies the reasons for terminating you, no employer can fire you if it was for a discriminatory reason. Federal law prohibits employment discrimination as do state laws, though they vary on expanding the definition of discrimination. In California, your employer may have violated the California Fair Employment and Housing law based on sex, age, color, national origin, disability, marital status and sexual orientation. Some states and cities actually prohibit employment discrimination based on height or appearance.
Though your employer may have given a seemingly valid reason for terminating you, it may have had a discriminatory effect. For instance, if the restructuring or firing for financial reasons included you and every other employee 55 and over, it has the appearance of age discrimination. If only females who are obese were terminated while overweight males were not, it could constitute gender discrimination.
Though an employer might validly fire you for some seemingly unreasonable reason such as your ugly clothing or shoes, if you can show that your clothing protects you from toxic chemicals or that you have to wear orthopedic shoes, then the employer may be liable for not finding you a reasonable accommodation. A reasonable accommodation is to be offered someone with a legally recognizable disability or if the employer recognizes the condition as a disability. Once the employee informs the employer of the disability, which must be long term, then an accommodation needs to be developed so the employee can perform the job. It is not required if the accommodation would create an undue hardship on the employer. If not, then you may have a cause of action under the Americans with Disability Act or applicable state law.
Other Illegal Reasons for Employee Termination
- Whistleblower Retaliation
There are a number of laws relating to protecting workers for reporting their employers to government agencies or to their own supervisors for illegal conduct. Called “whistleblower” laws, these provide remedies to employees who are fired in retaliation for investigating or reporting such violations. A whistleblower under California’s whistleblower law is also an employee who is fired for refusing to engage in illegal conduct or which would be in noncompliance with a state or local regulation. If successful, a whistleblower employee may be entitled to reinstatement, lost wages and benefits.
- Reporting OSHA Violations
OSHA is the governmental body that implements safety standards and investigates and fines employers for workplace safety violations. Many of OSHA’s investigations begin when a worker reports a violation. It is illegal for an employer to fire anyone in retaliation for reporting one. No employer will admit to that, of course, and will find some excuse to fire the reporting worker such as unfounded accusations of misconduct or poor performance. The lack of documentation of poor production or performance and the timing of the firing are usually factors in successful retaliatory firing complaints.
- Violations of Public Policy
California also forbids the firing of any employee if the firing violated public policy as an exception to the “at-will” statute pursuant to Tameny v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (1980) 27 Cal.3d 167. These laws are intended to protect the public from unlawful conduct by employers and to protect the civil rights of workers. Public policy lawsuits concern the following categories:
- Refusal to violate a statute
- For performing a statutory obligation
- For exercising of a constitutional right
- Reporting a statutory violation
These categories include the reporting of safety violations or criminal conduct by employers but expands it to protections for exercising civil rights or following regulations. You do have to demonstrate that you were following a certain legal obligation or were exercising a right such as voting or joining a union and relate it to your dismissal before you can be compensated for retaliatory termination.
If you feel you were unjustly fired and can show that the underlying reason was discriminatory or otherwise unlawful, immediately seek competent legal counsel to explore your legal options.