What is at-will employment? At-will defined.
An employment, having no specified term, may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other. Employment for a specified term means an employment for a period greater than one month.
If I am an at-will employee and I’m fired does that mean I cannot challenge my termination?
So if I am fired, how do I challenge my termination?
1. Arguing you were not an at-will employee
Some employees successfully argue that their employment was not actually at-will, but was controlled by some agreement or understanding they had with their employer regarding your relationship.
Employers will have employees sign employment agreements or contracts when they are hired. Typically, this agreements will reiterate that the employment is at will and that the employee can be terminated at the employer’s discretion. However, if the agreement contains terms like “the employee will only be terminated for good cause” or other similar terms, that agreement can be used to demonstrate that the employment was not at will.
This is why it is important to retain copies of all agreements you sign when you being your employment. If you can provide these documents to your attorney when you are consulting with them about your termination it will help them determine very quickly whether any arguments can be made regarding your contractual relationship with your employer.
Implied contract claim
Employers often provide their employees with employee handbooks or other written materials. If these materials suggest that the employment relationship is not at will, or that employees will only be fired “for cause” or for certain misconduct than this would be strong evidence of an implied employment contract. California courts have recognized that when an employer promulgates formal personnel policies and procedures in handbooks, manuals, and memoranda disseminated to employees, a strong inference may arise that the employer intended workers to rely on these policies as terms and conditions of their employment, and that employees did reasonably so rely. Scott v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., 11 Cal.4th 454, 465 (1995).
Covenant of good faith and fair dealing
In some instances California has recognized that a termination after a long period the implied-in-law covenant of good faith and fair dealing contained in all contracts. This means that if you terminated for no after years of being a model employee, your employer’s actions may violate general notions of acting reasonably and dealing fairly. This theory is difficult to prove, but is recognized in certain instances in California. See, e.g., Pugh v. See’s Candies, Inc., 116 Cal. App. 3d 311 (1981), Cleary v. American Airlines, Inc., 111 Cal. App. 3d 443 (1980).
2. Wrongful terminations – firings contrary to law
Even if you are an at-will employee, your termination cannot be the result of an unlawful action. If your employer fires you because you tell them you are pregnant, regardless of whether you are an at-will employee or not, that would be a clear violation of law.
- Laws against discrimination based on:
- National Origin
- Using federally protected leave Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
- In some instances, your involvement in the reserves or other military deployments
- Engaging in protected Whistleblower Activity
I’m not sure if I am an at-will employee or not
I’m not sure my termination was illegal or not
If you think you were terminated for one of the above listed statutorily protected reasons, you should consult with an attorney to discuss your claim. Essentially these claims require that you demonstrate that your termination was the result of a violation of one of these laws. It can be difficult to prove the motivations of your employer and even more difficult to get evidence from the employer to prove the same. Accordingly, you should consult with an attorney to determine the merits of your case and assist you through the filing of your complaint, the discovery process, and either trial or settlement.
I hope this article explained at-will employment and gave you some ideas of the implications at-will employment has for employees facing termination. Hopefully, you also understand some of the more common theories that are advanced to challenge alleged at-will terminations and are better educated should you be dealing with such issues yourself.
If you have any further questions, contact our office.