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How at-will employment laws affect wrongful termination claims

Feb 21, 2024 | Employment litigation

Ideally, an employment arrangement is mutually-beneficial. Both parties derive something of value from the agreement. The worker obtains a new job with the training, compensation and connections that come with that position. The employer benefits from someone’s labor and possibly their expertise.

When the situation is no longer mutually-beneficial or when the needs of either party change, it may be necessary to rework or terminate an employment arrangement. In some cases, the worker moves on to a different job or decides to retire. Other times, the employer is the party to terminate the agreement.

Sometimes, workers who lose their jobs due to an organization’s choices that try to get their job back or demand compensation by filing a wrongful termination lawsuit. Companies responding to allegations of misconduct need to understand how California’s at-will employment law may influence those claims.

Employers can fire someone at any time, most of the time

California has some of the best employee protection laws in the country. At-will employment is one of those key protections. Businesses cannot compel workers to stay with the company when they no longer wish to do so and cannot punish a worker for quitting at any point even if they fail to give notice. An organization could not deny a worker their final paycheck, for example, for quitting on their last day of work.

Similar protections work for the benefit of the employer. A company can terminate an employment arrangement at any time without any notice. An organization does not need to provide a specific reason for terminating someone’s employment. No justification is necessary in an at-will employment state.

However, many companies protect themselves from potential litigation by carefully documenting the factors that led to the decision to terminate a specific employee. Otherwise, workers might try to claim that the company fired them for an illegal reason. While a company could potentially terminate a worker for any reason or no reason at all, it cannot fire someone for a discriminatory reason or in retaliation for that worker engaging in a protected workplace activity.

Particularly in cases involving an employee who has requested unpaid leave or filed a discrimination complaint previously, organizations may need to proactively protect against the possibility of that worker suing in response to their termination.

At-will employment laws place much of the burden in such cases on the worker alleging that the company violated their rights. The more documentation an organization has of the company’s financial challenges or a worker’s disciplinary issues, the easier it may be to effectively respond to allegations of wrongful termination.