California At-Will Employment Laws

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California allows both employees and employers to end an employment relationship at any time, but employers can be sued for wrongful termination.

Like most other states, California observes "at-will" employment laws. This means either you or your employer can terminate your relationship at any time, but your employer isn't allowed to terminate you for certain reasons.

Exceptions to the "At-Will" Employment Rule

Being an at-will employee means your employer doesn't necessarily have to have a good reason to let you go. He can simply decide that he doesn't like you and end the employment relationship. There are certain circumstances under which an employer can't terminate your employment, however, at least not without opening himself up to a lawsuit.

Public Policy Exception

The National Conference of State Legislature notes that the most common exception to the at-will rule is the public policy doctrine. Under this doctrine, employers can't fire an employee for:

  • Refusing to commit an illegal act
  • Exercising a statutory right
  • Reporting a legal violation
  • Performing acts that are in the public interest 

An employer can't fire an employee for whistle-blowing, for filing a worker's compensation claim, for taking family medical leave or taking time off to vote. It's also illegal for your employer to fire you based on discrimination against your religion, race, color, origin, disability, medical condition or sexual orientation.

Actual or Implied Contract Exception

If you have a contract with your employer that states you can't be fired without cause, and if you are fired without cause, your employer may be violating the terms of the contract. The state of California also recognizes implied contracts. For example, if your employer verbally expressed to you that you were guaranteed a job for a certain length of time, he may not be able to fire you.

California Employee Rights and Recourse

If you believe you were fired or let go in violation of your rights, you can sue your employer for wrongful termination or breach of contract. The court may require that your employer reinstate you, reimburse you for legal fees or pay you for damages.


  • If you'd rather not sue your employer, consider filing an unemployment claim. Provided that your employer can't prove you were fired for good reason, you may be eligible to receive weekly unemployment benefits from the state of California until you find a new job.


About the Author

Based in San Diego, Calif., Madison Garcia is a writer specializing in business topics. Garcia received her Master of Science in accountancy from San Diego State University.