Employment contracts in California are generally terminable at will and therefore an employee can be terminated at any time, with or without just cause. But “an employer's traditional broad authority to discharge an at-will employee may be limited by considerations of public policy.” Thus, when an employer's discharge of an employee violates fundamental principles of public policy, the discharged employee may maintain a tort action and recover damages traditionally available in such actions.

Employer firing employee under false pretenses

The Elements Of A Claim For Wrongful Termination In Violation Of Public Policy Are:

  1.  An employer-employee relationship
  2.  An adverse employment action
  3.  That the adverse employment action violated public policy
  4.  The adverse employment action caused the employee damages.  In other words, “the plaintiff must establish the existence of a public policy and a nexus between the public policy and an employee’s termination.”  

For an actionable Tameny claim, a relevant public policy must be implicated.

To Support A Wrongful Termination Claim, The Policy Must Be:

  1.  Delineated in either constitutional or statutory provisions
  2.  ‘Public’ in the sense that it ‘inures to the benefit of the public’ rather than serving merely the interests of the individual
  3.  Well established at the time of discharge
  4.  Substantial and fundamental.”  

The plaintiff (that is the former employee bringing the wrongful termination case) bears the burden of identifying the public policy allegedly violated.

In California, “Public Policy Cases Fall Into One Of Four Categories, The Employee:

  1.  Refused to violate a statute;
  2.  Performed a statutory obligation;
  3.  Exercised a constitutional or statutory right or privilege; or
  4.  Reported a statutory violation for the public's benefit.” 

In Hunter v. Up-Right, Inc., the California Supreme Court held that an employee's claim of fraud and deceit was “not an action to vindicate a broader public interest” for purposes of a wrongful-termination claim. Hunter asked to work in another position, but Up-Right refused, and so he “signed a document setting forth his resignation.” Hunter won at trial on a fraud claim. But although “fraud and deceit are defined by statute, and [although] fraudulent conduct is generally condemned by society,” the statutory prohibitions against fraud did not “concern society at large” in the sense of a wrongful-termination Tameny claim. Therefore, wrongful-termination tort damages were unavailable because a claim of fraud or deceit is essentially a private dispute seeking a monetary remedy, not an action to vindicate a broader public interest.”

The Employee Would Need To Do The Following To Sue:

  1.  Identify a policy that benefits the public and is relevant to the termination
  2.  Establish a causal “nexus” between the policy and the termination.

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Joshua Cohen Slatkin
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Personal Injury & Employment Lawyer Serving Greater Los Angeles