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What is Wrongful Termination?

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In California, the employee usually faces an uphill battle when trying to prove wrongful termination. This is because the employer-employee relationship in California is presumed to be "at will" unless the employee is hired pursuant to a union contract or an individual employment contract"At will" means that an employer can fire someone for any reason, as long as it is not an illegal one, such as when someone opposes sexual harassment or other illegal activity and is fired as a result of it.

However, the "at will" relationship can be modified either verbally or through an employer's custom or practice.For example, if an employee handbook contains a progressive discipline policy where verbal or written criticisms must be made prior to terminating an employee, the employee may argue that the employee was wrongfully terminated if the company did not follow its own policies in firing the employee.Similarly, if an employer verbally assures an employee continued employment, the "at will" relationship may found to have been modified, giving the employee a reasonable expectation of continuing employment for some time in the future, which might require the employer to establish "good cause" prior to terminating the employee.

In the legal sense of the phrase as used under California state law, "good cause " means " fair and honest reasons, regulated by good faith on the part of the employer, that are not trivial, arbitrary, or capricious, unrelated to business needs or goals, or pretextual." A reasoned conclusion, in short, supported by substantial evidence gathered through an adequate investigation that includes notice of the claimed misconduct and a chance for the employee to respond."Cotran v. Rollins Hudig Hall Int'l, Inc. (1998) 17 Cal.4th 93, 108.Although the Cotran Court recognized the need for deference to an employer's decisions, the employer's discretion is not unfettered. (Id. at 101).Otherwise, the employer's implied-in-fact promise to terminate only for cause would be illusory. Wood v. Loyola Marymount Univ. (1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 661, 670.

Wrongful termination claims turn on the individual facts in any given case. It is therefore important that the employee keep copies of any hiring letters, employee handbooks, and performance evaluations so that a reviewing attorney can better assist in evaluating the potential case.

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