How to Fight Unlawful Termination in California

Losing your job can be a challenging and distressing experience, particularly when it feels unjust. In California, employment is typically considered "at-will," which means...
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How to Fight Unlawful Termination in California

Losing your job can be a challenging and distressing experience, particularly when it feels unjust. In California, employment is typically considered “at-will,” which means that both the employer and the employee can terminate the employment relationship at any time and for any reason, as long as it’s not illegal. However, there are exceptions, and employees in California have certain rights and legal protections when it comes to termination. In this article, we’ll explore how to fight unlawful termination in California, including the relevant laws, steps to take, and resources available to employees.

Understanding At-Will Employment

Before delving into how to fight unlawful termination, it’s crucial to understand the concept of at-will employment. In California, most employment relationships are presumed to be at-will. This means that an employer can terminate an employee for any reason or no reason at all, as long as it’s not discriminatory or in violation of an employment contract. However, there are exceptions to this rule.

Exceptions to At-Will Employment

  1. Implied Contracts: If your employer has made specific promises about job security, advancement, or job duration, and you relied on these promises to your detriment, you may have an implied contract that limits the at-will nature of your employment.

  2. Public Policy Exceptions: Termination that violates public policy is not protected by at-will employment. For instance, an employer cannot fire you for refusing to engage in illegal activities, for whistleblowing, or for exercising your legal rights, such as taking family or medical leave.

  3. Discrimination: Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination based on protected characteristics such as race, gender, religion, disability, and more. If you believe you were terminated due to discrimination, you can pursue a legal claim.

  4. Retaliation: Employers are also prohibited from firing employees in retaliation for asserting their rights or filing a complaint against their employer.

  5. Breach of Employment Contract: If you have a written employment contract that outlines the terms of your employment, and your employer violates those terms, you may have a breach of contract claim.

Steps to Fight Unlawful Termination

  1. Gather Evidence: The first step in fighting unlawful termination is to collect evidence that supports your claim. This can include emails, documents, witness statements, performance reviews, and any other relevant materials. The more evidence you have, the stronger your case will be.

  2. Consult with an Attorney: Employment law can be complex, and it’s advisable to consult with an experienced employment attorney who specializes in California labor laws. They can help you understand your rights and provide guidance on the best course of action.

  3. File a Complaint with the Appropriate Agency: Depending on the nature of your claim, you may need to file a complaint with a specific agency. For example, if you believe you were terminated due to discrimination, you can file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). The DFEH will investigate your claim and may grant you a right-to-sue letter, which allows you to file a lawsuit.

  4. Negotiation and Mediation: Before pursuing a lawsuit, it’s often a good idea to attempt negotiation or mediation with your employer. Many employment disputes are resolved through these alternative methods without going to court.

  5. File a Lawsuit: If negotiation and mediation are unsuccessful, you may choose to file a lawsuit in California’s state court. Your attorney will help you draft the complaint and guide you through the legal process. Be prepared for a lengthy and potentially expensive legal battle.

  6. Attend Court Proceedings: If your case proceeds to court, you’ll need to attend various court proceedings. Your attorney will represent your interests and present your evidence, but your active participation may be necessary at times.

  7. Settlement or Trial: Most employment cases are settled before going to trial. If a settlement is reached, it typically involves a monetary award or other negotiated terms. If no settlement is reached, the case will proceed to trial, where a judge or jury will determine the outcome.

Resources for Employees

  1. California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH): The DFEH is the primary agency responsible for enforcing California’s anti-discrimination laws. They provide information, investigate complaints, and may grant right-to-sue letters.

  2. California Labor Commissioner’s Office: This office handles wage and hour claims, including issues related to unpaid wages or overtime. They can help you recover any unpaid compensation.

  3. Legal Aid and Nonprofit Organizations: There are numerous legal aid and nonprofit organizations in California that offer free or low-cost legal services to employees facing unlawful termination. These organizations can provide valuable support and guidance throughout the process.

  4. Employment Attorneys: If you’re serious about fighting unlawful termination, it’s strongly recommended to consult with an experienced employment attorney. They can provide legal advice, represent your interests, and help you navigate the complex legal system.


Unlawful termination can be a daunting and challenging experience. However, employees in California have legal protections and resources to fight against wrongful termination. Understanding the exceptions to at-will employment, gathering evidence, seeking legal counsel, and using available resources are crucial steps in your fight for justice. Remember that each case is unique, so it’s essential to consult with an experienced wrongful termination attorney to determine the best course of action in your specific situation. With determination and the right support, you can work towards a fair resolution and protect your rights as an employee in California.