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How Long Do You Have to Sue for Wrongful Termination?

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If you’ve recently faced a job loss in California that you believe was unjust, it’s normal to have questions about your rights and options. One of the first things you might wonder is, “How long do I have to take legal action for wrongful termination?”

If you or a loved one has suffered from a wrongful termination, reach out to our experienced wrongful termination lawyers in San Diego for legal assistance.

Schedule a Free Case Evaluation Today!

Understanding Wrongful Termination in California

In California, most employment is considered at-will. This means that employers or employees can end their working relationship without a specific reason at any time.

However, significant exceptions apply to this rule, where termination of employment might violate your rights. These exceptions include termination due to discrimination, retaliation, violation of public policy, and breach of contract. Let’s look at each of these forms of wrongful termination in more detail.

Discrimination

Discrimination as a basis for wrongful termination occurs when an employee gets fired due to their membership in a protected class. Protected classes include race, religion, gender, age (if the employee is over 40), disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, and pregnancy.

Below are a few examples of termination due to discrimination:

  • Age Discrimination: An employer might terminate an older employee to replace them with a younger, less expensive employee. This is particularly relevant in industries that favor younger demographics.
  • Gender Discrimination: An employer might terminate an employee due to their gender, including instances where women get dismissed for being “too aggressive” in roles men traditionally fill.
  • Racial Discrimination: An employee might face termination based on racial prejudices, such as an employer favoring employees of a certain race for certain roles or promotions.

Retaliation

Retaliation happens when an employer terminates an employee for engaging in legally protected activities. This can include filing a complaint about workplace safety, discrimination, harassment, participating in an investigation, or whistleblowing on illegal activities.

Here are a few more examples:

  • Union Activities: Termination might happen for organizing or joining a union, which labor laws clearly protect.
  • Taking Family or Medical Leave: Firing an employee solely for taking legally protected leave, such as under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), will constitute retaliation.
  • Refusing to Engage in Illegal Activities: An employee who refuses to participate in illegal actions their employer demands and subsequently loses their job can be a victim of retaliation.

Violation of Public Policy

Termination is against public policy when it happens for reasons society recognizes as illegitimate grounds for termination. This can include firing an employee for refusing to break the law, performing a statutory obligation like jury duty, or exercising a legal right or privilege, such as filing for workers’ compensation.

Here is a short list of scenarios involving termination in violation of public policy:

  • Whistleblowing on Corporate Misconduct: If an employee reports corporate fraud or other misconduct to authorities and gets fired as a result, this is a violation of public policy.
  • Exercising Voting Rights: Terminating an employee for taking time off to vote, a clearly protected right, will violate public policy.
  • Reporting Health and Safety Violations: Wrongful termination can happen when an employee reports OSHA violations and gets fired.

Breach of Contract

Woman examining documents with a concerned expression during a meeting with a man who is working on a laptop.

When an employee has a written, oral, or implied contract stating that employers can only terminate them for certain reasons or after certain procedures, and the employer does not adhere to these terms, it can be a breach of contract.

This is more common in cases where high-level executives have employment contracts, but it can also apply in other situations.

Here are a few examples:

  • Failure to Honor Promised Promotion or Raise: If an employer verbally promises a promotion or raise within a certain timeframe and then terminates the employee instead, this can be a breach of an implied contract.
  • Early Termination of a Fixed-term Contract: If an employee is hired under a contract for a specified period and then terminated before the end of that period without a valid reason stated in the contract, it’s a breach of contract.
  • Changing Job Roles or Conditions Without Consent: If an employee’s job role, location, or key conditions are significantly altered without their agreement or without adhering to contractual terms, leading to termination, it can constitute a breach of contract.
  • Unjustified Negative Performance Reviews Leading to Termination: Sometimes, an employer might suddenly start giving an employee unjustifiably poor performance reviews and use these reviews as a basis for termination. If these negative reviews are unfounded and seem to be a pretext for firing the employee, especially in contrast to previously positive reviews, this can indicate a breach of an implied contract. This situation often arises in scenarios where the employer’s real motive for termination might be discriminatory or retaliatory but is disguised under the false claims of performance issues.

Each of these exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine highlights scenarios where termination may be deemed wrongful under California law.

Understanding these exceptions is necessary for employees who believe they have suffered wrongful termination, as it forms the foundation of a potential legal claim against their employer.

The Statute of Limitations for Wrongful Termination

The term statute of limitations refers to the time frame you have to bring a lawsuit. 

In California, this period varies depending on the nature of your wrongful termination claim:

  • Discrimination or Retaliation Claims: If you’re suing because of discrimination or retaliation, you typically have three years to file a claim with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). Once you receive a Right to Sue notice from the DFEH, you then have one year to file a lawsuit in court.
  • Breach of Contract Claims: If your case involves a breach of an employment contract, the time limit depends on whether the contract was written or verbal. For written contracts, you have four years from the date of the breach to sue. For verbal agreements, the limit is two years.
  • Public Policy Violation Claims: Employees must file these claims within two years. This type of claim occurs when an employee gets fired for reasons that violate California’s public policy, such as refusing to participate in illegal activities at work.

In legal matters, especially in cases of wrongful termination, time is not just a factor, it’s a pivotal element that can make or break a case. You need a lawyer who understands and adheres to these deadlines for several reasons:

The most obvious reason timeliness is required is that missing the statute of limitations can result in losing your legal right to sue. Once the deadline passes, the courts usually have no discretion to allow your case to proceed, regardless of its merits.

Evidence and Witness Availability

Over time, evidence can become harder to find or less convincing, and witnesses may move, forget details, or change their willingness to testify. Filing your claim promptly ensures that evidence remains fresh and witnesses’ memories are more likely to be accurate. This helps in building a stronger case.

Demonstrating Seriousness and Commitment

Prompt action can also signal to the opposing party that you are serious about your claim. This can be important in settlement negotiations, as it shows you are committed to seeking justice and not merely threatening legal action.

Emotional and Financial Closure

The sooner you file your claim, the earlier you can potentially reach a resolution, whether through a settlement or a court decision. This resolution can bring a sense of closure and emotional relief.

Additionally, if you are seeking damages for lost income or other financial hardships due to the wrongful termination, a quicker resolution can help alleviate financial stress.

Avoiding Complications

Legal processes can be complex and often involve pre-litigation steps, such as filing a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) in discrimination cases. These steps have their own timelines and requirements, and delaying your action can complicate these processes or make them more challenging to navigate.

Keeping Options Open

Meeting the statute of limitations keeps your options open. Even if you’re considering settling your claim out of court, having the option to go to court if necessary can provide leverage in negotiations. It ensures you have a fallback option if settlement talks do not proceed as expected.

Changes in Law

Laws and legal interpretations can change. By acting quickly, you reduce the risk of a change in the law affecting your case’s potential outcome. Although changes in law do not often retroactively affect cases, they can influence ongoing or newly filed cases.

How an Attorney Can Assist

Working with an attorney can significantly help in wrongful termination cases. An attorney can:

Assess Your Case

Professional reviewing a legal document on a tablet, preparing for a wrongful termination case, with a pen in hand.

When you approach an attorney after a wrongful termination, the first and foremost step is for them to thoroughly assess your case. This assessment involves a detailed review of the circumstances surrounding your termination.

An attorney will look into whether your termination might have been due to illegal reasons, such as discrimination or retaliation, or if there was a breach of an employment contract or a violation of public policy.

During this assessment, the attorney will gather information about your employment history, the events leading up to your termination, and any relevant communications between you and your employer. They will also review any evidence you have, such as emails, witness statements, or performance reviews, to determine if your termination was unjust.

This detailed assessment is critical in determining the strength of your claim and the best course of action moving forward.

Guide You Through the Process

The legal process of a wrongful termination claim can be complex and overwhelming, especially if you’ve just lost your job and are scrambling to get back on your feet.

An attorney plays a huge role in guiding you through each step of this process. This includes explaining your rights, the relevant laws, and what to expect as your case progresses.

If your case involves filing a claim with the DFEH or another regulatory body, your attorney will assist in preparing and submitting the necessary paperwork. They will also advise you on any investigations or responses from the DFEH.

If the case proceeds to litigation, an attorney will help draft the legal documents, prepare for court appearances, and develop a strong argument to support your claim.

One of the most pressing roles of an attorney in a wrongful termination case is managing legal deadlines. The statute of limitations and other time-sensitive requirements are important to watch in legal proceedings. Missing a deadline can mean losing the right to sue entirely.

An attorney will keep track of all important deadlines, including the time frame for filing a claim with the DFEH, submitting a lawsuit in court, and any other procedural timelines they must follow.

By ensuring you meet these deadlines, an attorney helps maintain the viability of your case and protects your right to seek justice.

Represent You in Negotiations and Court

Finally, an attorney will represent your interests in both negotiations and in court, if necessary. Many wrongful termination cases settle out of court, and an attorney can negotiate a fair settlement with your former employer. 

They will advocate on your behalf, aiming to reach a settlement that adequately compensates for your losses and damages.

Your attorney will represent you in court if they cannot reach a fair settlement through negotiations with your employer. This involves presenting your case before a judge or jury, cross-examining witnesses, and making persuasive legal arguments.

Having an attorney with experience in employment law can make a significant difference in the outcome of a court case.

In each of these roles, an attorney provides valuable assistance, protecting your rights and giving you the best chance of a favorable outcome in your wrongful termination case.

Contact a San Diego Wrongful Termination Lawyer

Alreen Haeggquist, San Diego Employment Lawyer
Alreen Haeggquist, Wrongful Termination Lawyer in San Diego

Facing wrongful termination is a challenging experience, but understanding your rights and the legal timelines in California is the first step toward resolving your situation.

Each case is unique, and the guidance of a knowledgeable employment law attorney can sort out your legal options effectively. If you think you’ve experienced wrongful termination, consult a wrongful termination lawyer for legal guidance as soon as possible to seek justice.

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