Coyle Browne Law


What is ‘At-Will’ Employments in California?

At-will employment is a doctrine governing the relationship between employers and employees, stipulating that an employment relationship can be ended by either party at any time, for any reason that is not illegal, or for no reason at all, without prior notice. 

This concept gives employers the flexibility to respond swiftly to changing business needs but also allows employees the freedom to leave their job whenever they wish. While this affords a degree of flexibility, there are important exceptions to this rule that are important to be aware of.

At-Will Employment Exceptions in California

One common misunderstanding is that at-will employment means an employer can fire any employee at any time without consequences. The truth is more nuanced. Employers are prohibited from firing employees in the following circumstances:

Public Policy Violations

Employees cannot be terminated if the reason for dismissal may result in a violation of public policy. An example would include firing an for filing a workers’ compensation claim.

Implied Contracts

Even in the absence of a formal, written contract, an implied agreement regarding employment terms may arise through employer conduct or written policies, limiting the at-will nature of the employment relationship.


Employers cannot terminate employees for discriminatory reasons, such as race, gender, age, or disability. These types of terminations violate federal and state anti-discrimination laws. 


Employees have the right to engage in protected activities, such as filing a complaint or participating in workplace investigations, without fear of retaliation from their employer. Terminating an employee for engaging in these activities is unlawful.

Whistleblower Protections

California has strong whistleblower protections that prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who report illegal activity within the company. In the event you have been wrongfully terminated due to retaliation or whistleblowing, contact our San Diego whistleblower and retaliation lawyers

Contractual Agreements

Employment contracts, whether written or verbal, create obligations and limitations on employers’ termination rights. These agreements typically outline the terms of employment, including the grounds for termination and any notice periods required.

While employers do have broad discretion to terminate at-will employees, there are significant limitations and protections in place. Employees ultimately have the right to a workplace free from discrimination and retaliation, and employers must be aware of their legal obligations when making termination decisions.

Navigating At-Will Employment Issues

Both employers and employees may find navigating at-will employment law challenging, especially when faced with issues of termination or job security. Understanding how to navigate employment issues can substantially impact the resolution of these matters. 

Understanding Your Employment Contract

It’s essential for employees to thoroughly review any written agreements to understand the scope of their employment and any provisions for termination.

Legal Recourse for Wrongful Termination

An employee who believes they have been wrongfully terminated has several legal options. Filing a claim with a state agency like the Department of Fair Employment and Housing is a common first step. In cases where administrative remedies are exhausted, or if the claim is particularly severe, pursuing legal action through the courts can be the next step. It’s a path that requires careful consideration and typically, the guidance of an experienced attorney.

The Role of Documentation

Whether contesting or defending a claim of wrongful termination, documentation is key. Employment contracts, performance evaluations, email correspondences, and any records of disciplinary action can all play pivotal roles in legal proceedings. For employees, such documents can corroborate claims of unfair treatment or retaliation. For employers, they provide a record of decision-making processes and can demonstrate adherence to lawful employment practices.

When to Consult an Employment Lawyer

For employees suspecting wrongful termination, consulting with an employment lawyer early on is important. Legal professionals can offer guidance on the viability of a claim based on discrimination, retaliation, or other exceptions to at-will employment

If you have been terminated and are considering legal action, it’s essential to act quickly. Contact our employment attorneys in San Diego today to schedule a free consultation.

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