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Navigating Wrongful Discharge Cases in California

wrongful-discharge-california.jpgMany employers fear wrongful termination claims because firing someone for the wrong reasons can land them in significant legal trouble. Unfortunately, almost every employer will have to terminate an employee. Reasons can be unrelated to the employee's performance, such as downsizing for lack of revenue. But, even if there were valid reasons for terminating the employee, employers may worry that the former employee will assert a wrongful discharge claim.

Unless the contract between an employer and employee expressly states that the employee will only be fired for just cause, the law presumes that an "at-will" relationship exists. In California, as in most states, employment is considered "at-will." The California Labor Code defines "at-will" employment, as "having no specified term" and is terminable "at the will of either party on notice of the other." Under California law, so long as the employment relationship is not based on a set term of months or years, an employee may be fired for any reason, regardless of how arbitrary it may seem.

However, this power is not absolute, as there are some exceptions. Employers are not permitted to terminate employment relationships when the reasons are based on discrimination, participation in protected activities or when the employee refuses to carry out activities that violate the law. Sometimes, an implied contract may arise.

Minimizing Exposure to Wrongful Discharge Claims

Since no company wants to be involved in wrongful discharge claims, employers need to take steps to reduce liability. An employer can minimize liability by utilizing and emphasizing "at-will" language in communications with current and future employees. This means including the term on job announcements, during interviews and training sessions, and even throughout the employee handbook. It is best for you to avoid references, terms or inferences that might indicate permanent job security.

Additionally, it is in your best interest to establish clear and consistent policies, applicable to all employees, for documenting employee performance, including sanctions and incidents with co-workers and customers. Ensuring these policies are equally applied to all employees will minimize the chance that your policies and practices will be considered discriminatory.

Furthermore, make sure that employment expectations are well known to the employee. Perform regular evaluations, identify performance objectives and advise your employees on whether they meet or fail to meet these expectations. Performing regular evaluations will assist in supporting your decision for terminating an employee.

Lastly, you should consider obtaining liability insurance for your business. Paying liability insurance premiums will be less expensive than spending resources to defend wrongful discharge cases.

Consult an Attorney That Specializes in Wrongful Discharge Lawsuits

If you are considering terminating an at-will employee, but failed to minimize your liability as identified above, or unsure if you can only fire the employee for just cause, you should contact an experienced San Jose employment law attorney at Diemer, Whitman & Cardosi, LLP who will advise you potential liabilities and suggest the best course of action. Reach out to our office today for help.

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