How to File a Wrongful Termination Claim in California

how to file a wrongful termination claim in california

Losing a job can feel incredibly disempowering for employees. Because California is an at-will employment state, employers have great flexibility in deciding who to fire and why. In most situations, your boss can dismiss you without warning or cause—and there’s little you can do about it. 

However, there are some lines that employers can’t cross. Employees fired under certain unlawful circumstances can seek compensation by filing a wrongful termination lawsuit against their employer. 

This blog post will give employees an overview of how to file a wrongful termination claim in California. We’ll explain how to know if you have a claim and the general steps involved in bringing a lawsuit. Keep in mind that no two cases of wrongful termination are alike. For advice specific to your situation, speaking to an employment lawyer is essential.

What Is Wrongful Termination?

Wrongful termination occurs when an employer violates state or federal law by firing an employee. Most employees in California are “at will,” meaning they and their employer have the right to end the working relationship at any time and for almost any reason. However, California and national employment protections ban employers from using certain illegal reasons to justify a firing.

Let’s look at common illegal reasons for an employee’s wrongful termination.


California and federal law make it illegal for employers to make job-related decisions based on an employee’s protected identity characteristics. For example, California employers can’t consider race, religion, gender, or citizenship status when deciding who to hire or fire. California and federal law also ban employers from firing pregnant or disabled employees who request reasonable accommodations on the job.


Employers also break the law when they fire employees who engage in certain protected activities. This kind of retaliation is illegal under California and federal employment law. Employers commit unlawful retaliation when they terminate someone who:

  • Complained about sexual harassment at work,
  • Applied for workers’ compensation,
  • Reported hazardous working conditions,
  • Refused to participate in illegal activity, 
  • Testified in an internal discrimination investigation,
  • Filed a claim for unpaid wages, and
  • Blew the whistle on any unlawful misconduct in the workplace.

Many other situations can also be grounds for illegal retaliation. A California employment lawyer can help determine if you’ve suffered retaliation for exercising your legal rights.

Breach of Contract

Sometimes, employment contracts require employers to follow specific procedures around disciplining or firing employees. Employers who ignore these rules can face penalties for violating the terms of a legal contract.

For example, a hotel worker’s collective bargaining agreement might require an employer to have “good cause” for dismissal, such as poor performance or insubordination. If the hotel fires the worker without a valid business-related reason, the worker could sue for wrongful termination via breach of contract.

How to File a Wrongful Termination Claim in California

Let’s walk through the process of holding your employer legally responsible for wrongful termination in California. 

Step 1: Gather Documentation

You need evidence demonstrating that your firing was illegal to prove wrongful termination. Moving quickly to collect relevant evidence is important. Generally, employees soon lose access to personnel files and work email accounts after termination. 

Save all recent communications with your boss, including emails, digital messages, and memos. Keep any official paperwork related to your employment, such as your contract, employee handbook, past performance reviews, and termination letter.

If your dismissal happened in an in-person meeting, write down everything you can remember from the event. This should include when and where it happened, the reasons for your dismissal, and the names of any witnesses. 

Step 2: Consult with an Employment Lawyer

A trained attorney is the best person to evaluate your situation and advise you on your legal rights. Make sure you meet with an attorney experienced in employment law and licensed to practice in California.

Look for employment lawyers with a track record of experience with the type of wrongful termination case you’re facing, e.g., firing based on gender discrimination, wage claim retaliation, etc.

You could bring your wrongful termination claim under several different federal or state laws, depending on the reason for your firing. An attorney can help you identify the best course of action for your circumstances.

Step 3: File a Formal Complaint

With the help of your attorney, file the paperwork for your wrongful termination claim. In many cases, employees who want to sue for wrongful termination must first file an administrative claim with the California Civil Rights Department or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You can proceed with a lawsuit once you have a right-to-sue notice from the appropriate authority.

Step 4: Negotiate for Damages

Your lawyer and your employer’s legal counsel will collect more evidence and try to resolve the dispute. If both sides can agree, you may not need to go to trial. Your attorney will represent your interests and advocate for you to receive compensation for the harm caused by your illegal firing. If your lawsuit is successful, you could recover damages for lost income, employment benefits, and even job reinstatement. 

Do I Need a Lawyer for a Wrongful Termination Claim?

Employees aren’t required to retain a lawyer to sue for wrongful termination. However, it’s generally in your best interests to do so. An attorney’s expertise is often essential when navigating the overlapping federal and state laws involved in these cases.

wrongful termination attorney can help identify and collect additional sources of evidence you may have overlooked. Plus, extensive legal knowledge and negotiating skills can also significantly impact the amount of damages you can recover.

Dedicated Legal Support for California Employees

Suing for wrongful termination is often more complicated than employees realize. However, the support of an experienced employment attorney can help maximize your chances of a positive outcome at each step in the legal process. 

At Starpoint Law, it’s our mission to provide California workers with the same high-quality legal expertise as their employers. As a small firm, we’re proud to provide clients with empathetic, attentive representation tailored to each situation.

Concerned about costs? We offer free one-on-one consultations for employees who’ve been fired illegally. We’ve helped employees recover hundreds of thousands of dollars for employer wrongdoing. Contact our office today to learn how we can help you.

Where You Can Find Our Sherman Oaks Office

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Starpoint Injury Law Staff

Starpoint Law was founded on a number of core principles that allow us to help our clients and develop deep and meaningful relationships. If you have suffered injuries or facing an issue with your employer, reach out to our legal team and we can sit down for a free consultation and start the process immediately.

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