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Termination in Violation of Public Policy

The at-will doctrine in employment provides that either the employer or the employee can end the working relationship with or without cause. Employees, therefore, can be terminated for any reason. However, employers and companies that adhere with this employment approach must not terminate employees for any reason that is unlawful. Thus, an employer operating its business on an at-will state, like California, is not allowed to terminate an employee for reasons in which public policy is violated. When this happens, the terminated employee must be able to assert his or her rights, in which he or she must seek legal representation in order to claim damages from the employer that committed illegally terminated him or her.

Basically, employment termination in violation of public policy is one of the most common exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine. Here, employers and companies that carry out this wrongful employment action disregard the firmly-established, fundamental, and substantial facets of certain public policies, which benefit the whole public. For example, an employer that terminates an employee because he or she filed a complaint about his or her employer’s discriminatory conduct is clearly a violation of public policy, since there are federal and state statutes that prohibit any form of discrimination in the workplace on account of one’s protected characteristic.

Most courts identify at least four types of situations in which public policy is violated during an employment termination. However, not all courts recognize any of each.

  • An employer terminates an employee because the latter refused to commit to an illegal activity being perpetrated by the former. For example, an employee was fired because he or she doesn’t want to follow his or her boss’ order to submit falsified documents to the government.
  • An employer terminates an employee because the latter exercised a certain lawful duty. For instance, an employee was fired because he or she was absent from work because of serving jury duty.
  • An employer terminates an employee because the latter exercised a certain right provided by the laws. When an injured worker files for workers’ compensation and gets fired for doing so, then the employer commits wrongful termination in violation of public policy. So is participating in an investigation with regards an employment complaint involving his or her employer.
  • An employer terminates an employee because the latter reported the former’s unlawful conduct or illegal activity. This is more commonly known as “whistleblowing.”

The wrongfully-terminated employee, meanwhile, must be able to file a lawsuit against the employer. The burden of proof, however, rests on him or her. In other words, he or she must show in the lawsuit certain elements that would emphasize that his or her employer wrongfully discharged him or her in violation of public policy. These include:

  • There was an employment relationship that existed.
  • The employer terminated the employee.
  • The motivation behind the termination is an improper one; that is, it violated a certain statute, regulation, or a provision indicated in the Constitution.
  • The employee suffered emotionally and financially because of the termination, thus entitling him or her to damages.

Meanwhile, employees who were terminated in violation of public policy in California should never take for granted what happened to them. In fact, they must be able to enforce their rights, and the best way to do so is to establish a lawsuit. But first, it is important that they seek legal representation from lawyers who specialize in wrongful termination lawsuits. That way, they may be afforded to pursue damages for the emotional suffering they suffered because of the termination.

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