What Does "At-Will" Employment Mean? | Aiman-Smith & Marcy
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What Does “At-Will” Employment Mean?

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:

  • The legal meaning of the term
  • Exemptions that exist and which ones apply to California
  • What you can do if you believe your rights have been violated

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.