A recent wrongful termination lawsuit filed against the Carneros Resort and Spa in Napa Valley by former Director of Facilities, Dan Philbin, claims that the luxury resort fired him from his position as an act of retaliation for his ongoing efforts to ensure that the resort was in compliance with the standards required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as trying to make sure that the resort was accurately reporting its water usage. Public relations representatives for the resort disputes Philbin’s allegations of wrongful termination, claiming that the former employee resigned voluntarily following an unsatisfying attempt to renegotiate the terms of his employment.
While the outcome of this particular case remains to be seen, the nature of this dispute does present a welcome opportunity to shed some light on California’s employment laws - specifically regarding what situations may actually constitute a wrongful termination in a state that considers employment to be an “at-will” arrangement between employer and employee.
Understanding “at-will” employment
One of the most important things to understand is that employment in the state is considered to be “at-will”. This applies to any kind of employment arrangement that is undefined in length and allows either the employee or the employer to end that employment for any reason that is not illegal in nature, or for no specified reason at all.
This can change, however, based on an employer’s decision to define a more specific set of guidelines regarding the termination of an employee’s position, which they can do either verbally or in writing. This includes outlining a procedure for ending employment in something like an employee handbook, which can actually serve as the basis for grounds of wrongful termination if the procedure as outlined is not followed when an employee’s position is terminated.
Wrongful termination and exceptions to “at-will” employment
There are still circumstances which constitute a wrongful termination, regardless of an “at-will” employment situation, and these generally occur when an employer fires one of their employees in a way that violates the workers’ civil rights or public policy. This protection is provided to employees by way of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which an employer can be in violation of if they fire an employee for the following reasons:
● Requesting time off work through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
● Refusal to break the law or for being a whistleblower
● Filing a sexual harassment claim
● Requesting time off to serve on a jury
● Voicing a negative opinion regarding illegal wage and hour practices
● Filing a claim for workers compensation
● Filing a claim of discrimination
An employer is also prohibited from discriminating against an employee in work-related decisions, which could include the termination of their job. There are several specific factors for which an employee cannot be discriminated against, including:
● Age (if over 40)
● Sexual Orientation
● Medical Conditions
● Marital Status
Additionally, an employer who has an established contract (written or verbal) with their employee which outlines a firing procedure who then fires that employee without just cause and without following the contract as outlined is in violation of FEHA.
Fortunately, employees in California are offered a substantial amount of protection when it comes to the potential grounds for pursuing a claim of wrongful termination. If you have been fired from your job for reasons that you feel meet the criteria of a wrongful termination and would like to discuss your case with an experienced attorney, please contact our office today for a free case evaluation.