Question:

I have an at-will agreement with my employer. I understand that this agreement means that I can generally be terminated with or without notice and with or without cause. I also understand that even with this agreement, I cannot be terminated for any illegal reason. I have been told that illegal reasons include reasons that violate the anti-discrimination laws or public policy. What would constitute a violation of public policy when it comes to terminating an at-will employee?

Answer:

There are a number of California judicial decisions that discuss the public policy limitations on an employer’s ability to terminate an at-will employee. Many of these cases discuss the issue of what is and what is not a public policy. In the California Supreme Court case of Turner v. Anheuser Busch, Inc., the Court held that in order to state a public policy claim, the policy at issue must be ‘”(1) fundamental, (2) beneficial for the public [rather than simply to the individual employer/employee], and (3) embodied in a statute or constitutional provision.” A later Supreme Court case clarified this ruling, holding that a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy may also be based on regulations issued by administrative agencies. An example of this might be regulations issued by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing or Department of Labor Standards Enforcement. One important restriction on a public policy claim is that a violation of an employer’s own internal regulations, even if generally of benefit to the public, is insufficient to state such a claim.

The following are some examples of situations where courts have found a violation of public policy.

  • Employee of a defense contractor terminated after complaining to supervisors that workers with inadequate security clearances had access to restricted military documents.
  • Employee terminated for filing bankruptcy.
  • Employee terminated for filing a Cal/OSHA complaint.
  • Employee terminated for refusing to drive an unsafe vehicle.
  • Employee terminated for refusing to sign an unenforceable covenant not to compete.
  • Employee terminated for disclosing the amount of his/her wages.
  • Employee terminated for complaining that co-workers were being sexually harassed and discriminated against.
  • Employee terminated for complaining about illegal pay practices.
  • Employee terminated for refusing to violate anti-trust laws.
  • Employee terminated for refusing to work with co-workers who do not have proper licensing.
  • Employee terminated for advocating a smoke free environment.
  • Employee terminated on account of a single wage garnishment.
  • Employee terminated for exercising rights under the pregnancy discrimination laws.
  • Employee terminated for disclosing the need to participate in an alcohol/drug rehabilitation program.

As this list illustrates, the circumstances that would constitute a violation of public policy are varied and quite fact specific. Given the broad range of complex laws that impact the employment relationship, there are countless bases for a wrongful termination in violation of public policy claim.
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