Wrongful termination happens when an employer terminates an employee in violation of the law. Generally speaking, employees in California work at-will. This means that an employer can fire an employee for any reason (or no reason at all).

But California employees have many protections under federal and state laws that prohibit termination for certain reasons. If your employer fires you for a reason that is prohibited under U.S. or California law, you can file a complaint against your employer or even them. 

Here are some examples of wrongful termination and a checklist of grounds to review if you feel that your employer has fired you wrongfully.

Examples of Permitted Grounds for Termination

Before getting into some of the prohibited grounds for termination, a few of the permitted grounds for termination include:

  • You pose a safety risk to yourself or your co-workers
  • You committed a mistake
  • You stole from your employer
  • You harassed or assaulted another employee

If your employer has a legitimate reason for terminating your employment, you probably do not have grounds for a claim of wrongful termination.

But if you believe that you have evidence that your employer terminated you for a prohibited reason, you might be able to claim wrongful termination. 

Examples of Prohibited Grounds for Termination

Some examples of prohibited grounds for termination are found below.

Termination Before the End of the Employment Term

If your employer hired you for a specific term, firing you before the end of the term could constitute wrongful termination. This scenario usually arises when an employment contract designates the time frame for your employment, such as if your employer hired you as a stagehand for the two-month run of a play,

If you were hired for a specific duration of time, your employer can only terminate your position before the end of the term if you:

  • Willfully breach your employment duties
  • Habitually neglect your job duties
  • Become incapacitated and cannot perform your job

Unless these circumstances exist, termination of your employment before the end of the term might constitute wrongful termination.

Retaliatory Termination

Employers cannot terminate employees in retaliation for exercising their legal rights. For example, U.S. law prohibits employers from terminating employees in retaliation for reporting discrimination in the workplace. California also has many statutes that prohibit retaliatory termination. 

For example, an employer may not retaliate against an employee who:

  • Takes time off to donate an organ or bone marrow, serve on a jury, or testify as the victim in a criminal proceeding
  • Files a wage or hour dispute with California’s Labor Commission
  • Requires time off work to meet with a school about a child’s suspension or expulsion
  • Reports unsafe working conditions
  • Refuses to work more than the maximum number of hours permitted by law

California has many other statutes that prohibit using termination to retaliate against an employee. California’s Labor Commission handles complaints under most of these statutes.

Discriminatory Termination

Both federal and state laws prohibit your employer from firing you for being a member of a protected class. 

Some of the protected classes under U.S. civil rights laws include:

  • Race
  • Nationality, including language and ethnicity
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity
  • Age (if you are 40 or older)
  • Disability, including pregnancy, genetics, and family medical history

California law adds a few more protected classes, such as:

  • Marital status
  • Military service or veteran status
  • Medical condition
  • Conditions surrounding pregnancy, including childbirth and breastfeeding

Any grounds for firing that is not on the list of protected classes will most likely not qualify for protection.

Proving Termination for Discriminatory Reasons

Wrongful termination based on discrimination requires proof of four elements:

  • Membership in a protected class
  • Awareness of your protected status by the employer
  • Adverse treatment, including termination
  • No adverse treatment of others who are similarly situated

For example, suppose that your employer fires you for speaking Spanish on the job. If your job does not require communication in English — as it might as a dispatcher or telemarketer — you might have a claim for wrongful termination.

Specifically, Hispanic is a nationality. If your employer heard you speaking Spanish, your employer is aware of your Hispanic nationality. Termination for speaking Spanish means that you were treated adversely for your nationality. If others with the same qualifications, experience, and time on the job were not fired, the burden shifts to the employer to prove that its action was not discriminatory.

Other Examples of Wrongful Termination Based on Discrimination

Some other reasons that might give you a claim for wrongful termination include:


If a disability does not impair you from performing your job duties, termination because of your disability may constitute wrongful termination. This holds true even if your employer has an alternate explanation, like your disability costs the health plan too much.


When an employer terminates an employee directly or indirectly due to their gender, the termination might be wrongful. For example, if a tire shop fires all of its female workers because the manager assumes that they lack the strength to lift heavier truck tires, the employer may be liable for wrongful termination. 

But the law might permit the tire shop to test its employees and require that employees lift at least 75 pounds to qualify for continued employment. Such a job requirement must reasonably relate to the job duties.


If an employer fires a 50-year-old salesperson because they feel that customers will buy more from a younger salesperson, the employer might have wrongfully terminated the employee. Age discrimination can occur even if the manager who fired the employee is also an older person.

Checklist for Wrongful Termination

If you believe that your employer terminated you wrongfully, review some of these key checklist questions to determine what you will need to prove your claim:

  • Did your employer hire you for a specified term and fire you before the term ended?
  • Are you a member of a protected class?
  • Did your employer know that you are a member of a protected class?
  • Were other similarly situated employees treated differently than you were?
  • Did your employer fire you for exercising a legal right?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you should consider speaking to an employment attorney in San Diego about a possible claim for wrongful termination.

To learn more, call our San Diego law firm at (619) 693-7727 or contact us online.

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About The Author

Nicholas J. Ferraro

Nicholas J. Ferraro is a skilled labor and employment lawyer and the founder of Ferraro Vega Employment Lawyers, Inc. Based in San Diego, he focuses on representing employees in class action and collective litigation cases. Education: Mr. Ferraro attended the University of San Diego School of Law, where he was a member of the San Diego Law Review. Experience: Over a decade of legal practice, representing more than 100,000 employees. Court Admissions: Mr. Ferraro represents his clients throughout the State of California and the State of Washington. He is a member of the State Bar of California. Community Involvement: Active member of the California Employment Lawyers Association and the San Diego County Bar Association.