It is not uncommon for my office to receive a telephone call from an individual that was recently terminated asking if they have a wrongful termination lawsuit. The former employee, angry at being terminated, wishes to file a lawsuit as a means to get back at his or her employer for simply being fired. One of the first questions I ask is, “Why do you believe you were fired?” It is not uncommon to receive a response similar to, “I did not get along with my supervisor and he had it out for me.” I then have to advise the individual on the telephone that if your boss was a jerk and you two had a difference of opinion, that does not provide a basis for a lawsuit. Naturally, the terminated employee does not like hearing this news as the individual is typically very upset, stressed due to losing his or her job and angry at his or her former employer.
It is important for employees who have been fired to understand that the mere fact one is fired does not give rise to a lawsuit. In California, employees are at-will, unless they have signed a contract with a specific hiring and end date. As an at-will employee, the employer is permitted to terminate the employment relationship at anytime. Likewise, the employee is also able to quit his or her job at anytime to take a better job without consequence.
The firing of an employee becomes illegal in California if the employer, supervisor, etc. fired the employee because the employee’s superior wanted to rid the employee because the superior did not like the employee’s race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, medical condition, disability and other immutable characteristics. However, simply because an employee who was terminated is African-American, does not necessarily mean that the termination was illegal. There has to be objective evidence showing that the African-American employee was treated differently than non-African-American employees. Under those circumstances, it gives the impression that the African-American was being treated differently, i.e. discriminated against, due to his or her race.
With wrongful termination lawsuits, the employee has to show that his or her immutable characteristic, i.e. race, gender, disability, etc., was the reason for the termination. Wrongful termination cases are very fact specific, so if there is evidence showing that the terminated employee had poor work performance, the employer will argue that the termination was performance related. However, if the employee performed his or her work well without complaints and there are sudden changes in the workplace demographics shortly after a change in manager, this could indicate that there is an ulterior motive in the terminations.
It is important for employees to understand that simply being fired does not provide a basis for lawsuit. The termination has to be illegal, i.e. employee fired due to race, religion, gender, etc.