A successful wrongful termination lawsuit can result in significant damages, penalties, and more. California follows the “at will” doctrine such that employers have the right to fire employees even if the employee is performing well and has done nothing wrong. However, it is unlawful to terminate an employee if a substantial motivating factor for the termination was prejudice based on a legally recognized characteristic, which is termed a “protected class.” Some protected classes are listed below.
Age (40 and over)
Race, Color, Ethnicity, National Origin (including language use restrictions)
Denial of Family and Medical Care Leave
Disability (mental and physical), Medical Condition (cancer and genetic characteristics), Genetic Information
Sex (including pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and medical conditions related to pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding), Gender, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression, Sexual Orientation
Employee reporting a violation of his or her own rights
Whistleblower reporting that the company is violating a law
If an employee convinces a judge or a jury that the termination was “substantially motivated” by, for instance, the fact that an employee is a minority or the fact that the employee reported a violation of his rights, the company could be held liable for significant amounts of money because there are penalties, multiple types of damages, and more associated with wrongful termination claims.
The core monetary component of a wrongful termination claim is the amount of money the employee lost after being terminated. That is, the money the employee would have earned through regular paychecks but did not earn because he was fired. To take an easy example, imagine an employee works full-time for a salary of $50,000.00; the company tells the employee he is being terminated because he took medical leave. This is clearly a wrongful termination. If the employee cannot find a job for exactly 12 months despite trying to do so, the core component of damages for this case would be $50,000.00. If the employee found a job after exactly 6 months, the core component of damages for the case would be $25,000.00. Some people refer to this number as the “economic damages” or “hard damages.” When negotiating settlements, the hard damages often drive most of the discussion.
In addition to so-called hard damages, there are many other remedies available to workers. First, certain claims, including wrongful termination claims, can trigger punitive damages, which the Court may award to punish improper conduct. Second, emotional distress damages are possible and are often easier to get than punitive damages. Third, there can be significant penalties associated with wrongful termination claims. Fourth, interest will further increase the damages. Fifth and finally, an employee who wins a wrongful termination claim will generally be able to force the company to pay all attorney fee costs. This can be scary for a company because the attorney fees can be enormous and are often greater than all other damages combined.
Under California law, there is a fundamental and well-established public policy against a company taking any adverse employment action motivated by the fact that an employee has a protected characteristic. Under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), it is an unlawful employment practice to take any adverse employment action motivated by the fact that an employee has a protected characteristic. Said public policy is embodied in the Constitution of the State of California and California Statutory law, including but not limited to Government. Code § 12940. Judicial opinions have also concretized claims for wrongful termination. See Tameny v. Atlantic Richfield Company, 27 Cal. 3d 167 (1980) and Rojo v. Kliger, 52 Cal. 3d 65 (1990).
Under California law, the true legal analysis for wrongful termination can get far more complicated. Are you considering filing a lawsuit? Have you been named in a lawsuit as a defendant? Either way, we can help. Some law firms’ practices are limited to representing solely employees or solely employers. We have the experience and expertise to do both. Although we work on both sides of “the bar,” we like to think of ourselves as serving one and only one side—yours.
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