Wrongful Termination: Discrimination and Medical Leave

Employers generally are allowed to fire their at-will employees, at any time.  But there are state and federal statutes that create certain circumstances where termination is never appropriate.  For example, California has enacted the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which prohibits the unfair treatment of employees on the basis of their sex, race, religion, or sexual orientation.  Terminating an employee for such an improper reason would trigger this statute, and allow the former employee to sue for wrongful termination.  Similarly, Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, and national origin.  Title VII applies to hiring or firing, compensation, terms, conditions, and privileges of employment, and to any practices which limit, segregate, or classify employees or applicants.  Thus, state and federal law impose significant limits on a private employer’s right to hire or fire, which should factor into an employer’s business practices.

Another federal statute that protects employees from wrongful termination is the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees employees the right to take medical leave if they are pregnant, too sick to work, or if they need to stay home to take care of a sick family member.  Terminating an employee because they need to take medical leave can also expose an employer to civil liability in a similar way to discriminatory termination.  In addition, California has a similar statute to the FMLA, known as the California Family Rights Act (CFRA).  Unlike the FMLA, the CFRA allows a wrongfully terminated employee to sue for punitive damages, which are designed to punish an employer for an intentionally wrongful or malicious termination. Thus, California provides an added level of protection for employees, and an additional reason for employers to be careful when making staffing decisions.

If you are an employer who needs legal advice on whether you have the right to terminate your employee, or if you are an employee, and believe you have been wrongfully terminated, then contact our office at (805) 498-1212.



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