Wrongful Termination Versus “At Will” Employment

No employer enjoys firing an employee.  This is typically made even worse and more complicated if the employee has sustained a work-related injury and has mentioned filing or already has filed a claim for workers’ compensation.  There are special laws and protections in place for employees who have suffered on-the-job injuries.  Conversely, employers are not required to continue to extend employment for an employee who is performing poorly or who is not otherwise fulfilling essential job functions, even if the employee has filed a workers’ compensation claim.  This is where we see a tension between “at will” employment and wrongful termination claims.

In California, most employment is done on an “at will” basis.  This means that an employer may usually fire an employee for almost any reason, unless that reason is deemed part of a protected class, such as race or religion.  There are exceptions to “at will” employment, such as if there are contracts or in some cases if the worker is part of a union.  Ultimately this means that an employer is free to discharge most of its employees at any time for nearly any or even no reason at all.

Labor Code 132a provides an important caveat to “at will” employment.  Under 132a, an employer may not discharge or induce adverse employment action against an employee in retaliation for an employee’s decision to file a workers’ compensation law suit.  This provision is meant to provide essential protection to keep employers from simply firing or punishing any employee who seeks to have his or her medical expenses paid for under the workers’ compensation system.  Note, however, that 132a does not provide an invincible shield for an employee.  An employer is still free to discharge an employee even after the employee has filed a workers’ compensation claim if the reason for the discharge is not in retaliation for the workers’ compensation suit.  As you can see, 132a provides only a very narrow exception to the general “at will” employment rule.  If an employer feels that an employee is not performing well, is not meeting job functions, is no longer a good fit for the office, or basically any other reason not relating to the workers’ compensation claim, the employer is still free to exercise its rights under “at will” employment.

If you own a business, it is crucial to understand the limitations under 132a.  Call me today at (714) 516-8188. We can talk about your business and whether your actions are in compliance with California law.

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