California is an at-will state. This means that, unless your employment contracts specifically state otherwise, you can fire your employees for any legal reason whatsoever, or for no reason at all. It’s an unfortunate part of running a business that sometimes you have to let people go due to performance issues, conflicts or downsizing. But what should you do if an employee you recently terminated comes back with a lawsuit, alleging that you fired them for illegal reasons?
The employee’s allegations
There are both California state and federal statutes that protect employees from wrongful termination. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and the United States Civil Rights Act (CRA) both prohibit employers from firing employees due to certain protected characteristics.
Under the statutes, if an employer chooses to fire an employee, the decision to terminate them cannot be based on the employee’s race or color, sex or gender, national origin, disability, pregnancy or other protected characteristics such as age. If they do, the employee will have grounds for a wrongful termination suit against their former employer, which can be costly for both parties.
Your company’s defense
In order to successfully defend against allegations of wrongful termination, your company’s attorney will have to prove that the decision to fire the employee was not based on illegal reasons. You can do this by showing that, under the circumstances, any reasonable employer would have terminated the employee, and that there was no improper motive behind the decision.
Thus, the first thing you should do when receiving notice of the impending lawsuit is to direct your human resources department to gather all documentation they have on the employee to present to your attorney, so that they can use it in preparation of your defense.
Any history of tardiness, excessive absence, work-related performance issues, behavioral issues or things of that matter could be useful for showing that your decision to terminate the employee was based on rational grounds and not on a protected characteristic. If the decision to terminate was based on the financial health of the company, gather financial records that your attorney can use to demonstrate that.
Running a company comes with many unique challenges, not the least of which being the danger of litigation from ex-employees. By taking the proper steps, you can maximize the probability of being able to defeat any allegations of wrongful termination that disgruntled ex-employees may bring against you. Hart Kienle Pentecost aggressively litigates employment issues such as wrongful termination claims on behalf of its clients. Contact us today, to see how we can help.