About 55% of Americans get their sense of identity from their job. So imagine how devastating it would be if you were fired from it, especially through no fault of your own and under potentially unlawful circumstances.
Unfortunately, this happens far too often in the country, with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reporting over 72,000 cases in 2019 alone. What do you do if you find yourself wrongfully terminated?
Was I wrongfully terminated?
Before anything else, it’s worth noting that California is an at-will employment state. That means that workers are free to leave a job for any reason, but employers can also terminate workers without specifying a cause.
While at-will employment grants companies great latitude over terminating workers, they cannot fire people for unjust reasons. That’s why federal employment law has exceptions that prevent wrongful termination. These include letting someone go because of their:
- Race or nationality
- Political beliefs
- Physical or mental disability
- Medical issues
- Marital status
- Sexual orientation or gender identity
- Military status
A firing can be also considered wrongful termination if done with expressly unlawful intent. Examples include:
- Firing someone for reporting a company’s illegal actions
- Firing someone for taking extended time off allowed by federal law
- Firing someone for refusing to do something illegal
- Firing someone in direct violation of collective bargaining agreements
- Firing someone as a form of sexual harassment
- Firing someone for seeking a safer work environment
By and large, employment in California is considered at-will unless otherwise stated. If you’re not sure what your status is, check your employment contract—it should be clearly worded there whether you are an at-will employee or not.
Remember that independent contractors cannot invoke wrongful termination protections as they are not at-will employees to begin with. If they feel that their engagement was terminated wrongfully, they might sue for breach of contract instead.
What’s my next step?
Do you have reason to believe your termination was unlawful? The best course of action is to consult an employment attorney in San Diego. But to maximize your chances of winning your case, be sure to heed these tips:
This is easier said than done, but keeping a cool head prevents you from making rash decisions that could hurt your case. In particular, resist the urge to retaliate at your employer by damaging property or leaking confidential information. Such behavior could be used by your employer to justify your firing in the first place, and they could very well sue you for the trouble you caused.
Ask for your employee file
Termination should always be the last resort and good managers typically issue warnings before letting someone go. But if your employee file is otherwise clean but you were abruptly fired, your employer might have nefarious reasons for doing so. Luckily, the California Labor Code allows former workers to inspect or receive a copy of their employee file; you or your lawyer just need to submit a written request to the company.
Managers know how to word firings to minimize legal liability, so it’s up to you to prove there are unlawful reasons for your termination. Do you have emails, voicemails, or text messages that can prove dubious motivations? Can you convince former colleagues to act as witnesses on your behalf? You should also write down your account of the events leading up to your termination. If you were let go for filing a sexual harassment complaint, for example, create a written chronology of all the dates and circumstances when someone acted inappropriately towards you.
File your case
Where you file your claim depends on the case you wish to file. Know the correct government agency to approach when filing for wrongful termination:
- Fired for discrimination, harassment, or retaliation: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).
- Fired for whistleblower complaints: U.S. Department of Labor (DOL)
- Fired for workplace safety complaints: Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH)
- Fired for equal pay complaints: The EEOC or the California Labor Commissioner’s Office
What reparation can I receive?
If you win your case, you can get legal reparation in several ways:
Compensatory damages: This gives you back unpaid wages, with the amount usually being equal to what you would have received had you not been fired.
Punitive damages: Usually awarded if the employer fires a worker for especially malicious reasons. This penalty seeks to deter them from repeating the violation.
Legal costs: Your former employer may also be required to shoulder your legal costs, including fees for lawyers and expert witnesses.