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Termination or Resignation of Employment Without Notice or Cause

Wrongful TerminationGetting fired from a job can be terrifying. Quitting can be equally terrifying. In this post, I discuss frequently asked questions about an employee or employer ending the employment relationship without notice or cause.

Can I Quit Without Notice?

Employees working in California are presumed to be “at will.” (Cal. Lab. Code § 2922.) “At will” means that the employment is “at the will” of the employee and employer; the employee can resign at any time, for any reason, and the employer can fire the employee at any time, for any reason (that is not unlawful—see below).

So, an at-will employee can legally resign with a telephone call or other notice to the employer. Absent a written contract indicating otherwise, an employee does not have to provide a reason, or “cause,” for the resignation. A hostess working at a restaurant in Anaheim, California could quit 24 hours before her next shift. A biomechanical engineer in Irvine, California could resign in the middle of his shift because the temperature in the office is too low.

Though it is permissible to quit without providing two weeks’ notice, it is almost always a bad decision to do so. The employer is left scrambling to find coverage on short notice. Additionally, an employee often needs to use the prior employer as a reference for future employment. Leaving on short notice could jeopardize future employment if the former employer is listed as a reference and then contacted. Similarly, not listing the former employer in the employee’s resume will leave a “gap” that the employee will need to explain.

Can an Employer Fire Me Without Notice?

If there is no contract between an employer and employee, the employer does not need “cause” to fire the employee, just as the employee does not need “cause” to quit her job. At-will employment provides flexibility to both sides to end the employment when it becomes untenable.

The parties may, however, sign a written contract that guarantees the employee a specific term of employment. Employment contracts with specified terms are used to attract and incentivize highly qualified candidates. For example, a sports club in Los Angeles, California may hire a president for a three-year term, where a competitor is only offering two years. When the length of an employee’s employment term is specified, the “at will” presumption no longer exists. An employer must then have good cause to terminate the employee, such as the employee committed an unlawful act on company property. Typically, the employment contract also specifies that the employer must provide notice of 30 to 60 days before the termination is effective. This gives the employee time to seek new employment.

Was Your Termination Unlawful or Just Unfair?

It is legal for an employer to fire an at-will employee for no reason or for an arbitrary or irrational reason. In other words, an employee can be fired because a manager harbors personal animosity against the employee or because the employee is being replaced by a seemingly less-qualified candidate selected by the “new regime.” Of course, the termination may feel unfair and like bad business practice. However, it likely will not rise to the level of “illegal.”

To be illegal, the termination must be motivated by an unlawful basis or a violation of public policy. For example, an employer firing an employee because she is Hispanic or disabled. Termination because of an employee’s race, ethnicity, color, national origin, or disability constitutes an “unlawful policy.” Protecting employees against discrimination in the workplace is a fundamental public policy of the state and federal governments. It is also a fundamental public policy to protect employees who voice complaints about illegal activity by the company or protest against participating in illegal activity.

Wrongful termination in violation of public policy is illegal and entitles an employee to recover damages, including back pay and punitive damages. “Unfair” termination, on the other hand, is likely to be dismissed in court and may entitle the employer to recover its costs from the employee. Sometimes distinguishing an “unlawful” termination from an “unfair” termination can be challenging.

It is important to understand your rights whether your employment ends by resignation or termination. If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated or retaliated against by your employer, contact experienced Orange County employment law attorney Yashdeep “Jesse” Singh to schedule a free consultation.

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