Workers can sue for wrongful termination when they have been fired or laid off from their job for an illegal reason, such as discrimination or retaliation. Workers who have been wrongfully terminated have a limited time in which to file their lawsuit, however. This time period is set by each state’s statute of limitations. In California, this can be 2 or 3 years.
What is a wrongful termination?
A wrongful termination happens when an employer lays off or fires a worker for an illegal reason. Both federal law and state law protect workers from wrongful terminations. Some common examples of wrongful termination claims involve discharges that:
- violated an implied contract or the employment contract,
- went against public policy, or
- retaliated against a worker for:
- whistleblower activities,
- reporting a work injury or filing a workers’ compensation claim,
- using their medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA),
- filing a claim of sexual harassment with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC),
- needing time off from work to go to jury duty,
- claiming that there was a hostile work environment to a boss or superior, or
- engaging in protected activities, like political speech.
In some cases, the wrongful termination is based in employment discrimination. Anti-discrimination laws protect workers over their:
- national origin,
- sexual orientation,
- genetic information,
- medical conditions, and
- many other protected traits.
Additionally, many states have their own laws that provide more protections to workers.
Workers whose employment relationship is an at-will employee, however, have fewer rights. In California, for example, there could only be a wrongful termination lawsuit if the person’s employment state was that of at-will employment and the termination:
- violated public policy,
- amounted to fraud or misrepresentation,
- violated an implied contract for continued employment, or
- violated an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.
When can I file my lawsuit?
Workers who have been wrongfully terminated have a set period of time after being fired to sue their employer. This period of time is described in the state’s applicable statute of limitations. Which statute of limitations applies will often depend on the specific nature of the wrongful termination. To further complicate things, some laws require fired workers to file an administrative complaint before taking their case to court.
For example, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is a federal law that protects whistleblowers who report securities fraud that is happening in the workplace. Firing a worker who has blown the whistle on this type of fraud can violate the act. This can amount to a wrongful termination.
Before filing a wrongful termination claim under the Act, though, workers first have to file a complaint with the United States Secretary of Labor or its designee. This complaint has to be filed within 180 days. Only if the Secretary of Labor does not act on the complaint within 180 days of receiving it can the worker file a lawsuit against his or her employer.1 Workers have a total of 4 years after their wrongful termination to file a claim under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.2
Many wrongful termination claims are covered by several laws. Some of these cases arise under both state and federal law. This can mean that there are multiple statutes of limitations that have to be complied with. Establishing an attorney-client relationship with an employment lawyer from a local law firm and getting his or her legal advice is the best way to know for sure how to proceed with your claim.
Why does the statute of limitations limit when I can sue?
There are several reasons why the statute of limitations puts a time limit on when plaintiffs can file their lawsuit. The most important are:
- it ensures that people remember what happened,
- it makes it less likely that witnesses and important parties will disappear or pass away,
- it makes it more likely that important documents will still exist and can be easily found, and
- it allows the defendant to repose once the time limit has passed.
Why do some laws use an administrative complaint process?
Some wrongful termination laws require victims to file an administrative complaint, first. This process is designed to resolve the case out of court, often through mediation or arbitration. This reduces the expenses of bringing and defending the claim, and takes strain off the court system. It also gives employers an opportunity to correct the problem without facing a lawsuit.
What is the law in California?
In California, workers have to file their wrongful termination case before the applicable statute of limitations expires. Which statute applies will depend on which employment or labor law is being invoked. Generally, aggrieved workers have 2 or 3 years to file their claim:
|Type of wrongful termination claim||Applicable statute of limitations|
|Breach of contract||2 years3|
|Violation of public policy||2 years4|
|California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)||3 years to file an administrative complaint5|
|California Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN Act)||3 years6|
|Whistleblowing protections under California Labor Code 1102.5||3 years7|
These time limitations begin when the worker is terminated.
If the lawsuit or complaint is filed after the timeframe has expired, it can be dismissed easily by the former employer. This makes it essential to see a wrongful termination lawyer or employment law attorney early on.
- 18 U.S.C. 1514A.
- 28 U.S.C. 1658(a).
- California Code of Civil Procedure 339 CCP.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 335.1 CCP.
- California Government Code 12960 GC.
- California Code of Civil Procedure 338(a) CCP.
- Minor v. Fedex Office & Print Services, Inc., 182 F.Supp.3d 966 (N.D. Cal. 2016).