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Wrongful Termination in California: How to Prove a Claim

Written By: Mo Eldessouky Updated On: January 23, 2024 | Read Time: 9 Minutes

If you have recently been fired from your job, you may be wondering how to prove that your termination was wrongful. Unfortunately, this can be a challenging process, and many people don’t know where to start or may feel overwhelmed and give up.

However, with the help of an experienced wrongful termination lawyer, you can improve your chances of proving that you were wrongfully terminated and get the compensation you deserve.

To prove wrongful termination in California, you must have evidence that your employer’s stated reason for firing you was not the real reason and that the termination was motivated by:

Under California and federal employment law, proving a wrongful termination case is not easy. It requires thorough investigation and evidence to support the employee’s claim.

Note: The burden of proof is on the employee to prove that the termination was wrongful and that he or she suffered damages as a result. The employer does not have to prove that it had a legal basis for the action as most employees are considered “at-will” employees meaning that the company can terminate them at any time for any non-discriminatory reason.

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California Wrongful Termination Law

wrongful termination california

In California, employees can sue former employers for wrongful termination based on various grounds, including breach of contract, retaliation, discrimination, and violation of labor laws. The California Department of Industrial Relations has relevant laws listed.

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What is Wrongful Termination in California?

Wrongful termination is defined as being fired from your job for reasons that violate state or federal law. In California, employees are protected against wrongful termination by a number of different laws, including the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the California Labor Code, and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

To prove that you were wrongfully terminated, you will need to show that your employer violated one of these laws when they fired you.

An employer may hide behind lawful grounds for termination, such as:

  • poor performance,
  • disruptive behavior,
  • absenteeism,
  • lack of qualifications,
  • or violations of company policy.

Employers will rarely admit they fired an employee out of retaliation, racism, or other unlawful motives. As such, most successful wrongful termination cases require the help of a knowledgeable and experienced employment attorney.

The Burden of Proof in a Wrongful Termination Case

The burden of proof lies with the employee in a wrongful termination case. The employee must prove that their employer fired them for an unlawful reason and that they suffered damages as a result.

It is important to note that employers do not have to prove they had a legal basis for terminating an employee, as most employees in California are considered “at-will” employees meaning they can be fired at any time, for any reason that is not discriminatory.

It is also important to note that an employee cannot claim wrongful termination if their employer had a legitimate business reason for firing them, even if the employee disagrees with the decision or believes it was unfair.

What Will You Need to Prove in a California Wrongful Termination Case?

To prove wrongful termination, you will need more than just hearsay; you will need physical evidence alongside testimony from witnesses. Along with documentation of your firing and communications with your supervisor, eyewitness statements can also help build a strong case.

The burden of proof lies with the employee, not the employer.

In a civil employment case like wrongful termination, the party brining the case (the employee) must prove their case by a Preponderance of the evidence, meaning they simply have to show that, it’s more likely than not that the Defendant (Employer) broke the law. (think of the scales – as long as the scale tips slightly in his favor, even by a grain of sand, then by law, my client has proven his case by a preponderance and the jury must find in favor of the employee.

Direct evidence of illegal discrimination or retaliation is the strongest evidence in a wrongful termination case. Unfortunately, this type of evidence is rarely available.

However, there are other types of evidence that can be used to prove wrongful termination in California, including:

  • timing of events (i.e. if a complaint is followed by termination shortly after),
  • witnesses of statements that appear to be discriminatory (insulting jokes, racial slur, discriminatory nicknames, etc.),
  • a pattern of excluding individuals from a protected class and replacing them,
  • the treatment of one class of employees either better or worse than another,
  • and a history of complaints from other employees.

These types of evidence can help to establish a pattern of discrimination or retaliation and prove that the stated reasons for termination are false.

An experienced California wrongful termination lawyer should be able to help you with building a strong case and gathering all the necessary evidence.

An employee that alleges discrimination on the basis of disparate impact will usually be required to show: 

When disparate treatment is alleged, it means that the employer treats certain groups or people less favorably than others because of their race, color, sex or other protected characteristic. Mixon v. Fair Employment and Housing Com. (1987) 192 Cal.App.3d 1306, 1317 [237 Cal.Rptr. 884]

To establish that discrimination on the basis of disparate treatment has occurred, an employee is usually required to prove that:

Gather as Much Evidence as Possible

Gathering the right evidence to prove a wrongful termination case is key. It is therefore important to start gathering evidence as soon as possible after the termination. This includes:

  • Your employment contract,
  • An employee/work handbook,
  • Any personnel information that you may have,
  • A copy of company policies and procedures,
  • Emails, texts, and other written communication between you and your employer,
  • Previous job evaluations and reviews,
  • Paystubs,
  • A list of dates and times when you were disciplined, reprimanded, or noticed any discriminatory behavior,
  • and your termination notice from your employer, if they provided one.

The above documentation can help your attorney establish that your employer had a wrongful motive for terminating you and can help prove any damages resulting from the termination.

These documents and supporting information may ultimately help our firm prove that an unlawful motivation served as a “substantial motivating factor” in your layoff or employment discharge.

Be Sure to Write Everything Down

In addition to physical evidence, it is also important to keep a record of all events that could be relevant to your case.

If you even get a hint that your employer might be considering termination, it would be wise to start a journal or document detailing all relevant events, including dates, times, and conversations.

Writing everything down will help ensure that all the details are not forgotten and can be used as evidence in the event of a wrongful termination lawsuit.

If you have already been fired, then begin the journal today. It is never too late to start writing down any interactions you have with your former employer. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to remember the details of the events.

Establishing a timeline of events and a record of what happened can be very beneficial in a wrongful termination case.

Beyond proving that the employer violated the law, any Plaintiff in an employment case will also have to prove they suffered damages. In most employment cases, damages will fall into either the category of “special damages” (lost wages and future wages) or “ general damages” (emotional distress). For an employee to collect these damages they must prove they were unable to make the same amount of wages despite their best efforts. To collect emotional distress damages, it’s always best to have medical documentation supporting the challenges an employee faced following their termination. 

Employees be awarded compensation (damages) for the following kinds of harm if they can prove the following:

  • Anxiety and other emotional trauma resulting from the termination
  • Attorney’s fees and legal costs
  • Loss of benefits
  • Lost wages – both past and future
  • Punitive damages – only if an employer has engaged in fraud or is guilty of malice

Have an Experienced Lawyer Review Your Case

Facing a wrongful termination case is not easy. It can be emotionally and financially draining, so it is important to have the right help. An experienced California employment attorney will review your case and advise you on the best course of action. An attorney’s expertise will go a long way toward helping build your case and ensuring that you get the compensation you deserve.

Letting a lawyer handle the legal process will also take some of the burdens off of you, giving you more time to focus on finding a new job. A lawyer can help ensure that your rights are respected and protect you from any retaliatory action taken by your employer.

Related Read: How to File a Wrongful Termination Lawsuit in California

How Long Do I Have to File a Wrongful Termination Claim in California?

If an employee in California believes they were wrongfully terminated, they have 2-3 years from the date of their termination to file a lawsuit, depending upon the type of claim.

There are a few different routes to file a lawsuit for wrongful termination in California. As such, there are different statutes of limitation, depending upon what type of claim and damages you are seeking.

The below list displays the average time limits for filing a wrongful termination lawsuit in California:

  • Breach of Contract – 2 years
  • Violation of Public Policy – 2 years
  • California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) – 3 years
  • California Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN Act) – 3 years
  • Whistleblowing protections – 3 years

It’s important to act quickly if you believe you have a case, as the longer you wait to file a lawsuit, the more difficult it will be to prove your case. Keep in mind that if the statute of limitations has passed, you will not be able to sue.

When Should I Contact an Employment Attorney for Wrongful Termination?

The sooner you contact an employment lawyer to discuss your wrongful termination, the better.

Wrongful termination cases can be complex and require extensive preparation. The longer you wait from the date of termination, the more difficult it will be to collect evidence and build a strong case.

The following circumstances suggest that contacting an employment lawyer may be warranted:

  • You believe you were wrongfully terminated for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons.
  • Statements or actions made by your employer suggest that they were motivated by prejudice in terminating you.
  • Shortly before the firing, you revealed that you belong to a protected class.
  • You recently filed a complaint against your employer (sexual harassment, safety violations, etc.).
  • You recently came forward to either HR or management with information about workplace wrongdoings, such as a hostile work environment or potential fraud.
  • You engaged in a protected activity, such as whistleblowing or refusing to engage in an illegal act.
  • The employer’s “reason” for termination is implausible or simply untrue.
  • You are uncertain about the terms of your employment contract or what you are supposed to receive after leaving.
  • Your company stocks were close to vesting or you were about to receive additional benefits, such as collecting retirement money.
  • You were laid off for no apparent reason when other employees with similar job titles and backgrounds were not.

If any of the situations listed above describe your circumstances, you should consult a wrongful termination attorney in California as soon as possible.

Or, if you find yourself unsure or need help understanding the laws surrounding wrongful termination, an attorney can provide you with the guidance and advice you need to make informed decisions.

Get An Experienced Employment Lawyer On Your Side

It’s important to realize that filing a wrongful termination claim is not an easy task. Employment laws are complex, and the process of litigating a case can be difficult — especially if you don’t have legal representation.

The attorneys at Eldessouky Law are experienced in wrongful termination cases and can help you protect your rights. We understand the issues faced by employees who have been fired for unlawful reasons and we are dedicated to achieving justice for our clients.

If you believe that you’ve been wrongfully terminated from a job, contact Eldessouky Law today for a free consultation with a wrongful termination attorney.

Our legal team can review your case and advise you of your rights and options moving forward. Don’t wait — the statute of limitations for wrongful termination claims is limited, so don’t delay getting help from an experienced attorney!

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