What Does ‘At-Will Employment’ Mean?

California is one of many states that recognizes at-will employment. This means employers or employees can terminate their relationship ‘at-will’ with or without cause. Under California’s at-will doctrine, an employer can fire an employee under most circumstances. However, an employee can also quit without notice.

There are exceptions to the at-will employment rules that govern workplaces in California. Exceptions include firing employees for discriminatory reasons (age, race, gender, pregnancy status, ancestry, disability – just to name a few) or for taking family leave. Employers are also barred from firing employees for refusing to carry out illegal activities or for whistleblowing. In addition, an employee may have signed a contract or handbook stating job termination is only valid for specific reasons. Some union agreements may also prevent at-will job termination. There are many reasons why an employer can be guilty of wrongful termination.

Our hypothetical story can explain when wrongful termination may have occurred under California’s at-will employment law.

The Difference Between At-Will Employment and Wrongful Termination

Sally is a 27-year-old woman working for a Los Angeles advertising agency. Over the last four years, Sally has worked very hard to achieve the respect of her superiors. Her hard work eventually paid off and she was given an administrative role at the company. Three months into her new job, Sally becomes pregnant. Her bosses are not happy about this new development.

Sally’s bosses begin treating her differently, suggesting she should step down. When she asks about taking maternity leave, her bosses become outright hostile and refuse her request. Five months into her new position, Sally is unexpectedly fired from the company. Sally’s bosses claim that due to her new circumstances, they no longer have a place for her. However, Sally is smart. She goes home, composes herself, and immediately calls an employment law attorney.

Wrongful Termination and At-Will Employment: Do You Have a Case?

Would Sally have a strong case against her employer? Pregnant employees are protected by the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which is an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sally also asked for maternity leave, which she is entitled to under the California Family Rights Act and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Depending on what evidence Sally has to support her claims (evidence is extremely important in wrongful termination lawsuits), she may be successful if she files a lawsuit.

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