What-Does-At-Will-Employment-Mean-1024x552.jpg (1024×552)Every American worker is entitled to Amendment 5 of the U.S. Constitution.

“…No person shall be…deprived of life, liberty, or property.”

It also applies to the terms of employment. This means that your employer has a duty to not infringe upon the standards of treatment to which every American has a right.

Beyond sentiment, many of California’s workforce has heard conflicting definitions regarding the meaning of “at-will” employment. Most erroneously assume it means they can be fired for any reason at any time.

In this post, we are going to examine a few factors regarding employment-at-will in California that include:

A Simple Definition of “Employment At-Will”

Before we jump into the specifics, let’s start with the basics by reviewing the legal definition of “employment at-will”:

“An employee can be terminated at any time for any reason, except an illegal one, or for no reason without incurring legal liability.”

The wording of this legislation sounds somewhat contradictory at first glance. However, it’s clear that at-will employment does not equate to firing people for any reason, illegally or otherwise.

What Exceptions Exist in “At-Will Employment?”

For the most part, all U.S. States have adopted an employment at-will policy. The difference lies in the recognition of exemptions as outlined below:

Public Policy Exemption:  States that recognize a public policy exemption are allowed to fire an employee who refuses to perform illegal acts or reports suspicious activity to law enforcement officials.

Implied Contract Exemption:  States that recognize an implied contract exemption do not recognize certain activities (like training, benefits, merits) as have an employment contract with any guarantees.

Good Faith & Fair Dealing Exemption:  States that do not recognize “good faith and fair dealing” are not required to act as such in terminating an employee, with or without cause.

California’s only exemption lies within the good faith and fair dealing doctrine. It’s important to further note that, just because a state is exempt, doesn’t mean you can’t sue your employer for other reasons.

Does Employment At-Will Mean I Can Be Fired for Any Reason?

The short answer: No, not always.

Here is a good example of an instance in which you cannot be fired for filing an official report in a public policy exempt state:

Employee A is hard-working and diligent. However, she is troubled by the owner’s overt use of illicit drugs at the work site. The employee has decided to report this to the police, which results in her being fired.

If Employee A is employed in a public policy exempt state, can the owner be sued for wrongful termination?

At the state level, no. At the Federal level, absolutely.

Since it’s unlikely that the case will reach the Federal Court system, the employee can sue on other issues, such as breach of contract, bad faith and unfair dealing, “unclean hands,” and denial of protected property rights (life and liberty).

Speak with an Attorney If You Are Unsure

If you believe that you were wrongfully terminated by a California employer, then it is wise to run your situation by an experienced attorney. He or she will be able to determine if you have a case and how to approach. Employment violations are usually based on a contingency-fee (i.e. “if you don’t win, you don’t pay”).

At Aiman-Smith & Marcy, we work on a contingency fee basis, so legal expenses will not be an added source of stress. Plus, we love to meeting with new clients to hear your side of the story. Our team brings the clout of a big firm while maintaining personal service.

Contact our office today to see how we can help you.

Leave a Reply

Lisseth Bayona


Education and Background

I am a Los Angeles native and daughter of Salvadorian immigrants. From an early age, my parents instilled the value of hard work and education in me and my two siblings. Their perseverance enabled each of us to graduate from college and earn professional degrees.

My interest and commitment to workers’ rights have roots in my parents’ experiences as undocumented workers in Los Angeles. Witnessing the challenges they faced inspired me to pursue a career where I can help individuals confronted with similar struggles. To help someone in those moments is very satisfying. I love connecting with people and learning about their stories. I believe that dignity in the workplace is a right of all workers, not a convenience or privilege reserved for employees of a certain race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Legal Experience

I received my J.D. from the University of Southern California (USC) Gould School of Law. While there, I served as a judicial extern to the Honorable Patrick J. Walsh of the United States District Court for the Central District of California, where I drafted a criminal judicial opinion. Also, while at Gould, I served as an extern for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California. As a Criminal Division Extern, I had the opportunity to work closely with a trial team of Assistant U.S. Attorneys on a money laundering case which further sparked my interest in litigation.

Personal Interests

In my free time, I enjoy urban vegetable gardening, traveling, and spending time with my nephew and niece. I also love to spend time at San Onofre Beach learning to surf, although admittedly, I am not very good.



Hallie L. Von Rock

Attorney (SBN 233152)

Education and Background

I moved to the Bay Area from Washington after graduating high school. I had been accepted to UC Berkeley through a program where I could defer for two years while getting my California residency and attending community college, which was significant since I was paying for college on my own. I began working for Randall Aiman-Smith and Reed Marcy in 1996 as an office manager while taking night classes. My first foray into the legal world was soon after starting at the firm when I was ready to transfer to UC Berkeley. Rather than accepting my resident status, the Board of Regents took the position that California residency required a student to be in California “two calendar years.” Randall and Reed took up my case with the same verve as they helped their actual clients and I got the chance to comb through the UC Berkeley library to read their codes and regulations to support my position. In that experience, I learned what is was like to feel helpless against a big organization and then to have dedicated attorneys in my corner to take up my cause.

After a break to pursue my major in art history, I went to UC Hastings College of Law and continued working with Randall and Reed. Having worked together now for over 25 years, we have a unique ability to work collaboratively and finish each other’s sentences. I have strived throughout my career to make a difference in the lives of our clients. At the end of the day, if I am helping someone to get compensation for losses they suffered, then I know that all the work put into a case has been worth it.

Legal Experience

I have extensive experience in civil litigation and class action cases, including conducting discovery and depositions, calculating damages analysis, preparing motions for certification, writing appellate documents, and overseeing claims administration. We have handled several class actions against retailers where plaintiffs claimed they were forced to purchase clothing to wear to work and were not compensated for these purchases, including against Abercrombie & Fitch, Hugo Boss, Armani Exchange, Uniqlo, Dollar Tree, and Ross. Recently, I was trial counsel in a defamation claim against Bank of America on behalf of a former employee who claimed the Bank blacklisted her with future employers. The jury found Bank of America liable, including for punitive damages.

Personal Interests

Aiman-Smith & Marcy has sponsored me in the Boston Marathon and New York Marathon. When I race, I often wear a “Rockstar Ronan” shirt to support research for childhood cancer through The Ronan Thompson Foundation.


University of California, Berkeley, B.A., 1999

Hastings College of the Law, University of California, J.D., 2004

Randall Aiman-Smith

Abogado (SBN 124599)

Aiman-Smith & Marcy. Oakland consumer fraud attorneys.

Educación y antecedentes

Fui afortunado. A pesar de no haber terminado la escuela secundaria o la universidad, pude -aunque con mucho trabajo- ser admitido y sobresalir en una de las mejores escuelas de derecho del país: La Facultad de Derecho de la Universidad de Berkeley. Mientras estuve allí, tuve el privilegio de ser editor de la California Law Review y miembro del Moot Court Board, asesorando en la redacción de escritos y en la defensa de apelaciones a otros estudiantes. Después de salir de la escuela de derecho, en mis primeros años de práctica, enseñé la escritura legal y la defensa de apelación en la Universidad de California, Hastings College of the Law. También, a lo largo de los años, he sido presentador en eventos de educación legal continua.

Experiencia legal

He sido abogado durante 35 años. He dedicado mi práctica exclusivamente a representar a empleados, consumidores e inversores en los tribunales estatales y federales de primera instancia y en los tribunales de apelación. Me gusta ir a los tribunales por mis clientes y he llevado muchos casos con jurado en los tribunales estatales y federales.

¿Ejemplos? En 2010, fui la abogada principal, junto con los otros abogados del bufete, en el caso Williams v. Union Pacific Railroad donde, después de cuatro años de preparación, el bufete obtuvo un veredicto del jurado de 1.670.000 dólares para una empleada afroamericana. En Rivero v. Surdyka, fui el abogado principal en el juicio y la apelación de un caso de derechos civiles que duró 15 años, incluyendo un juicio completo y tres apelaciones al Noveno Circuito, concluyendo finalmente con una sentencia para los demandantes de más de 2.300.000 dólares. Estos casos ilustran el lema del bufete: compromiso – resultados. Hay que comprometerse con un caso, a veces durante mucho tiempo, para obtener el resultado que el cliente merece.

No siempre ganamos en el juicio. Cuando eso ocurre, el compromiso significa llevar el caso al siguiente nivel y recurrirlo. En el caso Rivero, antes mencionado, eso fue lo que ocurrió: el tribunal desestimó el caso -habíamos perdido- pero apelamos y conseguimos una victoria para nuestros clientes que mantuvimos a través de dos apelaciones más. Desde entonces, el bufete ha conseguido muchas victorias en apelación que reivindican los derechos de los empleados y los consumidores.

A lo largo de los años he sido abogado de los demandantes en numerosos casos individuales y acciones colectivas. Puede sonar cursi, o difícil de creer, pero después de todo este tiempo, y después de todas las grandes experiencias que he tenido, mi parte favorita de ser abogado es cuando consigo dar un cheque a mi cliente.



Facultad de Derecho, Universidad de California, Berkeley, J.D., 1986