By definition, wrongful termination occurs when an employee is laid off or fired for an illegal reason. Employees are protected by both state and federal rights. California is one of the most robust states in terms of employee protections with several laws in place to protect workers from wrongful termination. Despite these protections, employers still engage in wrongful termination knowingly, or unknowingly. It’s important for California employees to be aware of the laws to protect themselves from an employer acting in bad faith.

Understand California’s At-Will Employment Law

California employees are considered at-will. This means that employers can terminate an employee for any reason excluding illegal reasons. Over the years, California has come up with exceptions to at-will employment:

  • Employees in the public-sector
  • Employees with written contracts with specific causes for termination
  • Unionized employees with a “just cause” standard

As previously mentioned, employers are prohibited from terminating employees under certain illegal reasons. If an employee is fired for an illegal reason, they may pursue a wrongful termination claim.

Common Forms of Wrongful Termination


Under California law, it is illegal for an employer to terminate employment based on race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, or other protected characteristics. In many cases, it’s illegal for the employer to ask for this private information in the first place.


California labor laws protect employees who report their business’ illegal practices, also called whistleblowers. Employers are not permitted to terminate whistleblowers for engaging in protected activities, such as filing a complaint or testifying in a legal proceeding.

Additionally, employees are protected from retaliation for taking medical leave under the Federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA).

Refusing to Engage in Illegal Conduct

Employees in California are protected if they refuse to engage in illegal conduct or report illegal conduct. Employers cannot terminate an employee for refusing to participate in illegal or unethical practices such as violating a safety code or committing fraud.

What to Do if You Think You Were Wrongfully Terminated

If you suspect you were terminated due to an illegal reason, it’s important to take these steps to protect your rights.

  1. Keep record and document events leading up to your termination. Gather any physical evidence (email, mail, write-ups, etc.) and store them in a safe place away from your employer.
  2. File a complaint with the appropriate agency. In California, you may file using the California Civil Rights website. 
  3. Consult with a California employment law attorney. A legal expert can help you understand your rights and determine if you have a valid claim. If you decide to take legal action, a lawyer will guide you through the legal process. To learn more about filing a wrongful termination claim, click here. 
  4. Be mindful and take action within the statute of limitations. In California, you have two years from your termination date to file for wrongful termination and recover damages.