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  • By: Moss Bollinger
  • Published: April 24, 2024
A man holding a red note with the word you're fired representing wrongful termination - Moss Bollinger LLP

In this article, you will discover:

  • The legal grounds an employer needs for wrongful termination in California.
  • Which state and federal agencies enforce employment laws.
  • The time frame for filing a wrongful termination lawsuit, specific to each government agency.

When Does A California Employee Have The Right To File A Wrongful Termination Lawsuit Against A Former Employer?

Under California law, wrongful termination occurs when an individual is fired from their job in a manner that violates state or federal laws. Several statutes protect employees in California, including the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, the California Labor Code, the National Labor Relations Act, and various anti-discrimination laws at the state and federal levels. To establish a case of wrongful termination, it’s necessary to demonstrate that the employer breached one of these laws or public policy protections when terminating the employee.

Employers often attempt to justify terminations by citing lawful reasons such as poor performance, disruptive behavior, absenteeism, lack of qualifications, or violations of company policies. However, behind these seemingly legitimate grounds, wrongful termination may occur due to reasons like retaliation or discrimination based on race, gender, or other protected characteristics.

However, it’s crucial to understand that the burden of proof falls on the employee in a wrongful termination case. (This means you must provide evidence to substantiate these claims and show that you have suffered damages as a result.) Meanwhile, employers are not required to demonstrate a legal basis for termination because California follows the at-will employment doctrine, allowing employers to terminate employees for any reason as long as it doesn’t violate state law.

What Are An Employee’s Rights During An Internal Complaint Investigation?

Several scenarios could prompt a workplace misconduct investigation, including allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination based on protected characteristics, creation of a hostile work environment, fraud, or policy violations. These investigations may be initiated by the employer in response to complaints from employees, reports from supervisors, or third-party audits.

Regardless of how the claim is initiated – and regardless of whether you are being investigated or wish to make a complaint in the workplace – employees in California are entitled to certain rights. As such, it’s crucial to understand these rights in order to ensure fair treatment and protection against potential retaliatory actions.

Here are some key rights that you should be aware of during an internal complaint investigation…

  • The Right To Be Heard

Employees must be given the opportunity to express their side of the story and provide input during any investigation or complaint process.

  • The Right To Impartial Decision Makers

Those responsible for making decisions regarding the outcome of the investigation must be impartial and free from conflicts of interest.

  • The Right To Access Information

Employees have the right to access information that is being used against them during the investigation. This includes any complaints or evidence being used in the process.

  • The Right To Protection From Retaliation

Employees are protected from retaliatory actions, such as termination or demotion, as long as there is no evidence of wrongdoing on their part. For example, if an employee makes a complaint of sexual harassment, they should not face the possibility of losing their job for speaking up.

  • The Right To Prompt Investigation

Employees have the right to expect a timely and thorough investigation into any complaints or allegations made in the workplace.

  • The Right To Legal Representation

In some instances, employees may be entitled to have legal representation during the investigation process, particularly if the matter is complex or serious.

Furthermore, it’s important to note that during an investigation, employers must adhere to certain legal and ethical standards. They cannot violate employees’ privacy rights by searching personal belongings, such as cell phones or computers, without authorization. Additionally, they cannot contact employees’ doctors or record audio or video without knowledge or consent, as this may violate state wiretapping laws.

Understanding these rights is crucial for maintaining fairness and accountability in the workplace while empowering employees to address concerns without fear of reprisal. If you’re part of an internal complaint investigation, knowing your rights is essential, and seeking legal counsel if necessary can help protect your best interests.

What Should I Do If I Am Involved In An HR Investigation?

In any HR investigation, whether initiated by you or against you, it’s vital to document your interactions. Send follow-up emails after interviews or phone calls, summarizing what was discussed and asking for confirmation or correction if needed. HR departments often do the same, so creating your own record is essential. Document any requests for accommodations or complaints about harassment or discrimination as this serves as evidence for potential legal action and, more importantly, protects your interests.

It’s also crucial to understand that HR’s primary responsibility is to protect the company’s interests, so employees should be cautious and seek legal advice if needed. At the end of the day, HR departments primarily serve the company’s interests, aiming to protect it from legal liabilities and lawsuits. They prioritize safeguarding the organization, its managers, and supervisors. Of course, there may be times when HR departments may align with employee interests to ensure compliance with laws and company policies. Despite this, employees should approach HR interactions cautiously, as their allegiance is primarily to the company.

Am I Protected From Workplace Retaliation If I File A Complaint Or Lawsuit For Employment Discrimination?

Yes, you are protected from workplace retaliation if you file a complaint or lawsuit for employment discrimination. This protection is known as “protected activity.” As such, if you’re terminated because you reported discrimination or harassment, it can be considered unlawful retaliation.

However, if the employer can show a non-retaliatory reason for the termination, such as misconduct or business reasons, they may still discipline or terminate employees. Fortunately, experienced employment lawyers understand the nuances of these cases, including examining the timing of events and assessing whether the retaliation is genuine or pretextual.

If you suspect retaliation, it’s crucial to seek advice from an attorney or government agencies like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) to protect your rights.

How Long Does Someone Have To File A Discrimination Complaint Against An Employer?

If you’re filing a discrimination, harassment, or retaliation claim against an employer in California, you typically need to file a charge with the appropriate government agency. This can be the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Under California law, you have three years from the date of the unlawful act to file a complaint. Once you receive the right-to-sue letter from the DFEH, you have one year to file a lawsuit in court. For the EEOC, you have 300 days from the date of the unlawful practice to file a charge, and after receiving the right-to-sue notice, you have 90 days to file a lawsuit.

What Are The Potential Remedies Of Employment, Discrimination, And Loss Claims Or Lawsuits?

In a wrongful termination lawsuit, your claim may result in the following remedies…

  • Back Pay

Back pay compensates the employee for lost wages from the date of termination to the resolution of the case, considering the employee’s previous salary. However, if the employee finds interim employment, the back pay may be adjusted.

  • Reinstatement/Front Pay

If reinstatement to the previous position is possible, the employer may be required to hire the employee back at the same salary. If reinstatement isn’t viable, front pay may be awarded to compensate the employee for future lost wages.

  • Compensatory Damages

Compensatory damages cover emotional distress, pain and suffering, humiliation, and related impacts of the termination.

  • Punitive Damages

Punitive damages may be awarded for particularly egregious acts by the employer when discriminating, harassing, or retaliating against their employee. For more information on Dealing With Wrongful Termination In California, an initial consultation is your next best step.

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