April 09, 2011 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Have you or someone you know been fired for no valid reason, perhaps simply because of office politics? Did this strike you as wrongful termination, and did you speak with a number of lawyers, all of whom said, “Yeah, it’s a great case, but I am just too busy to help you now.”
Lawyers do not just toss good cases out the door with a flippant “I’m too busy, you’ll have to call someone else.” If it truly is a good case, we’ll take it, or make a referral to another attorney who will handle the matter. And yes, “referral fees” are common.
But often, there is no wrongful termination case, no case at all. The lawyer knows it, but is afraid to spend a few minutes in simply explaining why, for fear of being sued for malpractice.
The legal profession owes the public more than that. We should perform our role as counselor at law, educating the public, and at the same time, make it clear that lawyers – like doctors – sometimes have different opinions.
Especially for good employees, getting fired for no apparent reason certainly is “wrongful,” but is it “wrongful termination” in a legal sense? That question we’ll examine this week and next. But first, some interesting, recent history.
Skyrocketing claims for wrongful termination
At the same time the United States was falling deeper into “The Worst Recession Since the Great Depression” – which was a depression for those who lost their jobs and homes – claims of wrongful termination skyrocketed across the country.
Some had merit; most did not, and a cottage industry of lawyers sprang up overnight, sending demand letters for money, or their threats to file suit would be carried out. To employers who received these demands, they had all the fairness of a bank robber pointing a gun at your head.
In thousands of cases, this amounted to legalized extortion, with companies writing checks just to avoid defending what were so often baseless lawsuits, yet too expensive to defend.
But today, in many cases, the tide has changed, and instead of caving in, strong defenses are vigorously pursued. On occasion, where proven that the claims were baseless, both clients and their attorneys have been ordered to pay the employer’s attorney fees and related out-of-pocket expenses.
“There are, of course, employers who put the ‘c’ in crook and the ‘j’ in jerk, fully deserving to be hit hard in the pocketbook. But it is safe to say that the overwhelming majority of employees who lose their jobs haven’t got a prayer if they are in at-will employment states such as California,” commented a Sacramento attorney who works for a firm which represents employees and asked not to be identified.
She provided the following explanation of at-will employment in California.
What is at-will employment?
“In California, where there is no clearly defined employment agreement – such as a personal or union contract – an employer can dismiss an employee at any time, for any reason or no reason, except an illegal one, such as age, race, religion, sex, national origin, disability, veteran status, or being in some other protected class.
“But at-will isn’t a bad thing, as it gives employees tremendous freedom to leave one employer in the morning and go to work for another the same day,” she points out.
“You can quit and go where there are better opportunities. No one can prevent you from working for someone else unless there is an employment contract which restricts where or for whom you may work after leaving one employer, which we often see in certain professions and IT,” she stressed.
“I would like your readers to understand that, no matter how harsh this might appear, there is no requirement of “good cause,” to let an at-will employee go. You do not have to do anything wrong. You could be the top producer, highest evaluated employee, but if the boss or supervisor wakes up one day and decides that the two of you just can’t get along, that’s it.”
That is not the end of the story, as employers can lose at-will rights by doing the wrong things. “This is one reason that when you go to work for someone, you always want to keep every memo, anything which suggests that people will be fired only for cause, not just because some supervisor didn’t like you,” she underscores.
As an example, Maria and her husband were encouraged to exchange Kansas tornados for the risk of California earthquakes. Everything was going great in her job as a dispatcher for a Central Coast technology service company when she was suddenly fired. The boss claimed she was “at-will.”
Maria was ready to just give up, when a friend suggested she contact You and the Law.
Her story next time.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.