Wrongful termination in violation of public policy happens when an employer fires an employee for performing a legal obligation or exercising a legal right, and the obligation or right is related to important public policy.
California law prohibits employers from firing their employees in case that discharge would be in violation of public policy. This is true even though California is an at-will employment state, and employers have the right to terminate employment relationships at any time without reason.
Specifically, the employee can sue the employer for wrongful termination in case the employer has fired him for:
- Refusing to violate a statute
- Exercising a statutory right or privilege (attempting or organizing a union, engaging in political activities, etc.)
- Performing a legal duty (taking time off to serve on a jury; to serve as a witness in court, taking time off for military service, etc.)
- Reporting a violation of a public or statute importance
Elements of Wrongful Termination in Violation of a Public Policy
According to CACI 2430, the plaintiff must be able to establish the following elements to prove the claim of wrongful termination in violation of a public policy
- Plaintiff was employed by the defendant
- Defendant discharged the plaintiff
- Termination was the main reason that was against the public policy.
- Plaintiff was harmed
- Discharge was a substantial factor in causing harm to the plaintiff
One important thing the plaintiff must prove that there is a clear causal connection between his termination and the employer’s public policy violation.
Reporting a Violation of Law
The most common lawsuits over wrongful discharge in violation of public policy involve situations when employees are terminated for reporting illegal conduct that the employer has engaged in.
This protected by law activity is called “whistleblowing.” Federal laws protect employees who speak up about the employer who violates the law. By witnessing the questionable behavior of the employer, whistleblowing employees are granted immunity against termination and retaliation after reporting the employer to law enforcement. Employees have a right to sue the employer in case they are terminated because of whistleblowing.
Here are some federal and California laws which provide support for employees who want to protect their rights after being fired for whistleblower activities. These include:
- California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act
- The whistleblower provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002
- The “qui tam” section of the California False Claims Act.
Damages That Victims Can Recover
An employee wrongfully terminated in violation of public policy may recover the following damages:
- Restoring to the previous employment position
- Paying lost wages
- Lost benefits
- Attorney Fees
- Making necessary changes to employee handbooks and policies
- Emotional Distress
Statute of Limitations for Bringing a Lawsuit Against the Employer
In most cases, the deadline for filing a lawsuit against the employer for wrongful termination in violation of public policy in California is two years from the date of the termination.
However, responses to certain kinds of illegal termination have shorter deadlines for filing a complaint or suit. For example, in case the employment relationship is terminated in retaliation for complaining about harassment or discrimination at the workplace, the plaintiff must file a complaint within one year.