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Discriminatory Termination Is Wrongful Termination in California

October 6, 2021
By Haeggquist & Eck
Wrongful Termination in California

Under California law, an employee has a right to pursue a wrongful termination lawsuit against their employer if the termination was for a discriminatory reason. Besides discriminatory termination, firing an employee for exercising their rights or firing in violation of an employment contract may also give grounds for a wrongful termination claim.

In California, employees can pursue wrongful termination lawsuits even though California is an at-will employment state, which means employers can terminate employees at any time for no reason or any reason. However, even though California is an at-will state, state and federal laws prohibit employers from terminating employees for illegal reasons, including discrimination.

If you believe that your employer has fired you for a discriminatory reason—or any other illegal reason—do not hesitate to contact an experienced and results-driven lawyer to help defend your rights. A wrongful termination attorney will be ready to protect the rights of employees in Southern California against unfair employment practices.

Anti-Discrimination Protections Under Federal and State Law in California

Several federal and state laws in California prohibit workplace discrimination:

Both the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) handle discrimination complaints and discrimination-based wrongful termination claims.

Protected Characteristics Under Federal Law

Under federal law, employers can’t fire employees because of:

  • Race
  • National origin
  • Age (for employees aged 40 or older)
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation
  • Pregnancy
  • Gender identity
  • Religion
  • Political affiliation
  • Physical disability
  • Mental disability

When pursuing a wrongful termination claim under federal law, an employee will bring a claim with the EEOC.

Protected Characteristics Under California Law

California law provides the strongest protection against employment discrimination in the United States.

In California, it is illegal to fire an employee because of their:

  • Religion or creed
  • Age (over 40)
  • Race
  • Color
  • Sex or gender
  • Ancestry
  • National origin
  • Genetic information
  • Sexual orientation
  • Mental or physical disability
  • Pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions
  • Gender identity or gender expression
  • Marital status
  • Military or veteran status
  • Medical condition

When pursuing a wrongful termination claim under state law in California, an employee has to bring a claim with California’s DFEH.

What to Do if You Are Wrongfully Terminated in California?

If you think that your employer fired you for a discriminatory or an illegal reason:

  1. Consult an attorney to determine whether or not you have a right to pursue a wrongful termination claim against your employer; and
  2. Start gathering evidence related to your firing to prove that they terminated you for a discriminatory reason.

You should preserve all available evidence and documentation, including communications with your employer, to be able to prove wrongful termination. Your lawyer will review your particular situation and determine which types of evidence will be necessary for your wrongful termination case.

How Can You Prove Wrongful Termination in California?

The success of your wrongful termination case depends on the strength of your claim and the availability of evidence proving that you were fired for a discriminatory reason.

Typically, an employee needs evidence to prove that their firing constitutes wrongful termination:

  • Communications. Emails, text messages, and other communications with your employer, supervisor, or managers showing that you were subject to unjust or prejudicial treatment because of your protected characteristic;
  • Witness statements. If your coworkers will step in and provide their statements about what happened, you are more likely to prove that they fired you for a discriminatory reason.

While direct evidence is the most reliable type of evidence in wrongful termination and discrimination cases, you can also build your case on circumstantial evidence, which refers to a set of circumstances from which one could infer that an employer wrongfully terminated or discriminated against an employee.

Filing a Wrongful Termination Claim Under Federal or State Law

If you believe that your employer fired you for a discriminatory reason, seek legal counsel from an experienced attorney to determine if you should file a wrongful termination claim under federal or state law.

Filing a Claim With the EEOC

An employee who was discriminated against in the workplace because of their age, sex, national origin, race, sexual orientation, religion, pregnancy, gender identity, political affiliation, or disability (mental or physical) can file a claim with the EEOC before pursuing a civil lawsuit against their employer.

Under federal law, the time limit to bring an EEOC claim is 180 days unless the deadline can be extended. If your claim is successful, the EEOC will issue a Notice of Right to Sue. You then have 90 days to file a lawsuit after receiving the notice.

Filing a Claim With the DFEH

Alternatively, employees who were wrongfully terminated for a discriminatory reason can file a claim with California’s DFEH.

You may file a civil lawsuit in court instead of using the investigation process by the DFEH. Doing so is advisable only if a skilled lawyer represents you. If the DFEH issues a right-to-sue notice, the agency will not investigate your complaint even if you decide not to proceed with filing a lawsuit.

You have a year from the date of receiving the DFEH’s right-to-sue notice to bring a lawsuit against your employer. If your lawsuit succeeds, you may seek compensatory damages, punitive damages, and reinstatement.

If you are unsure whether you should file a wrongful termination claim with the DFEH or EEOC, consult with an attorney. A law firm can review what happened and advise you whether your employer and termination violated your rights under the law. If so, they will know how to best proceed to seek the legal relief you want and deserve.