Question

I was employed by a small business for a number of years. The business was recently sold, and the new owners have terminated me. I got along really well with the former owners, but it appears that the new owners instantly disliked me. Some of my co-workers indicated to me that the new owners made comments about the fact that I am Asian. When I was told that I was being terminated, I asked why and was told that I was an at-will employee and no reason was necessary. I was the only Asian employee and the only person that was terminated. In light of the comments my co-workers shared with me, I am afraid that I was terminated because I am Asian. Is it legal for an at-will employee to be terminated based on their national origin?

Answer:

No. The termination of an at-will employee based on her national origin would violate the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

In California, an employment relationship with no specified length is presumed to be “at-will.” This means an employer – or an employee – may terminate the relationship at any time, with or without cause or reason. However, an at-will employer may not fire an employee for a reason that violates state or federal law or public policy. The California Fair Employment Housing Act is one of the laws that limit an employer’s ability to fire an at-will employee. Although you do not specify in your letter, for purposes of this response, I will assume that the company you worked for has five or more employees. As such, your company is subject to the provisions of the FEHA that prohibit discrimination in employment based on a number of protected classes, including national origin, race, sex, religion, and marital status.

Other state laws that limit employer’s right to fire even an at-will employee include various provisions of the California Labor Code relative to workers’ compensation, wages and leave of absence, and the California Family Rights Act. Federal laws that limit an employer’s ability to terminate at-will employees include the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination Employment Act, the Consumer Credit Protection Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Family Medical Leave Act. Public Policy limitations on an employer’s ability to terminate an at-will employee include retaliation for reporting or opposing illegal activity and discharging an employee for supporting another employee’s protected activity.

If you believe that you were discriminated against based on your national origin, your next step should be to file a claim with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing or contact an employment law attorney.

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