Introduction: When an employee is discharged from work an issue arises: was the termination proper? An employer-employee relationship is like a marriage, very easy to get into, but difficult to cleanly get out of. We have represented both employers and employees in employment disputes. In my opinion most employment disputes can be settled if citizens knew the law. See below to get a quick lesson in Wrongful Termination. Note that in this case both the employer and the employer contacted me. Therefore, both their letters are below.
Question: Dear Mr. Cheng – I am worker in Rowland Heights. We work very hard, every day. Everyday my employer yells at me. He says that I am lazy and that I do not understand what he is saying. (I am from China and he is from Hong Kong). We work in conditions that are terrible. There are no windows and we sweat all day. I quit, because I hate the conditions there. I applied for California unemployment and was denied because I quit. I want to sue my employer. Do I have a case? Mr. Li – Rowland Heights
Question #2: Dear Mr. Cheng – I am an employer. My employee, Mr. Li showed me the letter that he wrote to you and therefore I thought I would write my own. Mr. Li is not able to keep up with the work scheduled for him. He smokes all days and talks too much. I wanted to fire him but I was happy that he quit. I am good to my employees. I provide them food every day. Now he says that he wants to sue me. Does he have a case? Harry – San Marino
Answer: Gentleman, having a case is easy to find. Most employers violate some area of the law. However, at the end of the day a case that wins or loses is not up to me, but the judge and jury members. What I can do is provide you a basic framework for legal analysis.
At-Will Employment: There is a presumption in California for at-will employment. What that means is that anyone can hire or fire anyone else for any reason. The only exception is for an illegal reason. What illegal reasons are there in California? The major ones are: race, religion, ethnicity, sex, physical disability, and sexual orientation. Essentially, discrimination of many types are illegal.
Conclusion regarding Discrimination: In this case, without further discovery, it does not seem like the employee or employer feels that discrimination is an issue.
Exception – Constructive Discharge in Violation of Public Policy: An exception to the basic discrimination lawsuits is a cause of action called: “Constructive Discharge in Violation of Public Policy” What that means is that Plaintiff must prove that working conditions were so intolerable that it violates a basic sense of decency.
Elements: The elements to this cause of action are simple to state but hard to prove:
1. Plaintiff was employed by Defendant. Cash employees may have a problem proving this.
2. That Employee was subjected to working conditions that violated public policy
3. That Employer intentionally created or knowingly permitted these working conditions.
4. That these working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable person in Plaintiff’s position would have had no reasonable alternative except to resign.
5. That Plaintiff resigned because of these working conditions
6. That Plaintiff was harmed
7. That the working conditions were a substantial factor in causing Plaintiff’s harm.
What is a Violation of Public Policy?:
The courts have said for this to succeed “An employer’s discharge of an employee [must violate] fundamental principles of public policy…” What does this mean? The California Supreme Court stated for someone to violate a principle of public policy the Plaintiff must show the following:
1. The policy must be supported by statutes.
2. The policy must be public in the sense that it benefits the public rather than just benefitting the individual
3. The policy must have been articulated at the time of discharge
4. The policy must be fundamental and substantial
Illegal conduct alone does not create a winning case: Courts have said illegal conduct is not enough to win these types of cases. Instead, what a judge or jury would ask is what would a reasonable person in the same situation do? If there is no reasonable alternative except to quit then the employee can win the case.
What do you get if you win? If an employee wins this type of lawsuit they get the following:
1. Back pay until the judgment
2. Any benefits that they would have reasonably received
3. Any pay increases they would have reasonably received
4. Value for future earnings that the employee would have received for up to the amount of time he/she would have kept working there
5. Emotional distress damages
6. Attorney fees
Conclusion: Employment cases are always difficult on both sides. However, if you are able to understand the law you are able to know, early, whether a case is winnable or not.