Wrongful Termination Statute of Limitations in California

December 31, 2023

What is a Statute of Limitations?

As an employment attorney, I've seen the consequences of overlooking statutory deadlines. It can lead to the loss of the right to seek justice. Below we’ll clarify these essential timeframes, equipping you with the knowledge to ensure that if you are wrongfully terminated in California, you do not miss the deadline to bring a claim.

California Statute of Limitations

The statute of limitations for bringing a wrongful termination claim in California is generally either two or three years, depending on the law under which the claim is brought. For breach of contract or public policy violations, the statute of limitations is two years but, for claims brought under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, and certain whistleblower retaliation laws, the statute of limitations is three years.

In terms of the start date for these time limits, generally, the clock begins ticking on the date of termination. However, in certain situations, such as discovering a violation after the fact, the start date may shift accordingly.

Claims With Two-Year Statute of Limitations

Breach of Implied Contract

In California, wrongful termination under an implied employment contract occurs when an employer dismisses an employee in violation of an unwritten agreement suggesting job security unless there is just cause for termination. This concept counters the "at-will" employment principle, allowing termination of the employment relationship by the employer or by the employee for any reason, absent a specific contract or law to the contrary.

“Implied employment” contracts are not written but are inferred from the employer's actions, assurances, company policies, the employee's tenure, or industry norms, creating an expectation of continued employment. To claim wrongful termination, an employee must show evidence of these implied assurances.

Legal recourse for breach of an implied contract includes seeking damages for lost wages and potential future earnings, minus what the employee could earn in similar employment. The deadline to file a claim is two years from the termination date, highlighting the importance of prompt action.

Public Policy Violations

Wrongful termination under the public policy exception to “at-will” employment in California involves firing an employee for reasons that violate fundamental societal norms and legal principles. This exception to at-will employment includes termination for:

  • Refusing Illegal Acts: Employees cannot be legally fired for refusing to commit unlawful acts requested by their employer.
  • Fulfilling Legal Obligations: Termination for performing duties required by law, such as jury duty or military service, is prohibited.
  • Exercising Legal Rights: Employees are protected from termination for exercising rights granted by law, like engaging in political activities or filing labor complaints.
  • Reporting Legal Violations: Known as whistleblower retaliation, this involves termination for reporting suspected legal violations by the employer, either internally or to external authorities.

The public policy exception is a critical safeguard ensuring that employees can act in accordance with the law and societal values without fear of losing their jobs. The statute of limitations for these claims is typically two years from the date of termination.

Claims With Three-Year Statute of Limitations

Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)

FEHA claims which address workplace discrimination and harassment, allow for a three-year window to file. This act is significant in California's employment law, offering broad protections against discrimination based on:

  • Race or national origin
  • Age (40 years of age or older)
  • Religion
  • Gender/sex
  • Disability
  • Other protected characteristics

If wrongful termination occurs under these grounds, the employee has up to three years from the incident to initiate a claim. FEHA claims begin with filing a claim with the California Civil Rights Department (CRD), which was formerly called the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).

Filing Procedures for an FEHA Claim

Before pursuing a lawsuit for a FEHA claim, you must first file an administrative complaint. This process involves several key steps:

  1. Filing with CRD: Within three years of your wrongful termination, file a complaint with the California Civil Rights Department (CRD).
  2. Awaiting Investigation: The CRD will investigate your claim to determine its validity.
  3. Receiving 'Right to Sue' Letter: If your claim is validated, the CRD will issue a 'right to sue' letter, allowing you to proceed with legal action. If you choose to forego the CRD investigation process entirely, you can also request an immediate Right to Sue letter.

California Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (CA WARN Act)

The CA WARN Act specifically deals with cases involving mass layoffs, relocations or plant closures. Here, the statute of limitations is also set at three years. This act mandates that employers provide sufficient notice to employees in situations of significant workplace changes, including large-scale layoffs. Key aspects of the WARN Act include:

  • Eligibility Criteria: It applies to employers with 75 or more employees, at any time during the past 12 months.
  • Notice Requirements: Employers are required to give a 60-day notice in the event of mass layoffs, plant closures, or major relocations.
  • Exceptions: There are certain situations where the 60-day notice may not be required, such as in unforeseen business circumstances or natural disasters.

The CA WARN Act largely mirrors the Federal WARN Act, although the CA WARN Act provides greater protections for workers.  Be sure to consult with an employment attorney to confirm whether the state and/or federal law may apply to your situation.

Failure to comply with these requirements can lead to wrongful termination claims.

Whistleblower Retaliation

Whistleblower retaliation claims in California also have a three-year statute of limitations. Several whistleblower laws include protection for employees who report illegal activities or violations within their company from retaliatory actions, including wrongful termination. For example, employees are protected from retaliation if they blow the whistle regarding wage and hour violation, health and safety violations, violations of FEHA (discussed above), fraud on the government, among others. Key protections for whistleblowers include:

  • Scope of Protection: Safeguards for employees reporting a variety of violations, including financial fraud, health and safety violations, and legal noncompliance.
  • Confidentiality and Anonymity: Many cases allow for anonymous reporting and ensure the whistleblower's confidentiality.
  • Remedies for Retaliation: Remedies can include job reinstatement, back pay, and compensation for any losses or damages.

Employees terminated under such circumstances have a three-year period to file their lawsuit.

Filing Procedures for CA WARN Act and Whistleblower Retaliation Claims

While FEHA claims necessitate filing with the CRD, CA WARN Act violations and whistleblower retaliation claims have their own procedures:

  • Direct Legal Action: Unlike FEHA, some claims, like those under the CA WARN Act, may not require an administrative complaint before suing. However, understanding the specific legal context and potential need for preliminary notices or complaints is important.
  • Whistleblower Protections: For whistleblower retaliation, the process may involve reporting to specific government agencies or internal reporting mechanisms before legal action. The statute of limitations for these claims is three years, but the starting point can depend on the incident's discovery date or the retaliatory action.

Special Note: Filing a Charge of Discrimination Before a Lawsuit

The regulations overseen by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), with the exception of the Equal Pay Act, mandate that an individual must submit a charge of discrimination before pursuing a lawsuit for unlawful discrimination. The timeframe to file this charge is subject to strict deadlines.

Time Limits for Filing a Charge:

The duration within which you must file a charge depends on the location of the alleged discrimination. Typically, you have 180 calendar days from the incident to file a charge. However, this deadline extends to 300 calendar days if a state or local entity enforces a law against employment discrimination on similar grounds (e.g., FEHA in California). Age discrimination charges follow a nuanced rule: the 300-day extension applies only if a state law, enforced by a state agency, prohibits age discrimination in employment. This extension does not apply under local laws against age discrimination.

California Wrongful Termination Statute of Limitations by Case Type

The table below is a quick-view summary of the specific timeframes for filing wrongful termination claims in California, categorized by the nature of each claim.

Case Type Statute of Limitations
Breach of Implied Contract 2 years from termination
Violation of Public Policy 2 years from termination
FEHA Retaliation 3 years to file with CRD; additional 1 year after receiving "right to sue" letter
WARN Act Violation 3 years from termination
Whistleblower Retaliation 3 years from termination
Federal Claims (e.g., EEOC) 180 days to file an administrative complaint

The timeframes in these limitations—two years for claims based on breach of implied contract or public policy violations, and three years for FEHA, WARN Act, and whistleblower retaliation claims—serve as strict deadlines for taking legal action. Starting from the date of termination or the discovery of the violation, these periods are critical for ensuring your claim is considered valid.

 Seeking Legal Counsel

In wrongful termination cases in California, early consultation with an employment lawyer is best to effectively manage the strict statute of limitations and complex legal procedures. An attorney will help you meet all necessary deadlines and adhere to specific legal requirements, which is essential for the success of your claim.

Engaging an employment lawyer early offers several advantages:

  • Clarity on Timeframes: Gain a precise understanding of the statute of limitations relevant to your case.
  • Legal Options and Strategies: Insights into the most effective strategies based on the claim type and evidence.
  • Guidance Through Filing Procedures: Benefit from expert assistance in managing the administrative and legal aspects of your claim.

Proactive Measures

Taking proactive steps is essential in protecting your rights and strengthening your position in a wrongful termination case. Consider the following actions:

  • Start Immediately: As soon as you suspect wrongful termination, begin collecting relevant evidence.
  • Types of Evidence: This includes emails, performance reviews, employment contracts, and witness statements.
  • Maintain Organization: Keep your evidence well-organized and readily accessible for when you initiate your claim.
  • Document Everything: Keep a detailed record of workplace interactions, performance reviews, and any incidents that may be relevant to your claim.
  • Report Concerns: If you encounter workplace issues, report them through the appropriate channels within your organization.
  • Preserve Communications: Save emails, messages, and other communications that could serve as evidence.
  • Understand Your Employment Contract: Familiarize yourself with the terms of your employment, including any clauses related to termination.

These proactive measures not only help in building a strong case but also ensure that you are prepared should you need to take legal action within the statute of limitations.

Frequently Asked Questions:

  1. What qualifies as wrongful termination in California?
  • Wrongful termination can occur under several circumstances, including discrimination, retaliation for whistleblowing, or breach of contract.
  1. Can I file a wrongful termination claim after the statute of limitations has passed?
  • Once the statute of limitations expires, filing a claim is generally not possible, emphasizing the need for timely action.
  1. What evidence is needed for a wrongful termination claim?
  • Evidence can include emails, performance reviews, witness statements, and any documentation related to your termination or the reasons behind it.
  1. How can an employment lawyer help with my wrongful termination claim?
  • An employment lawyer can provide legal advice, help gather and organize evidence, navigate filing procedures, and represent you in court or settlement negotiations.

Acting early in wrongful termination cases not only safeguards your rights but also positions you for a stronger legal stance. If you suspect your termination was unjust, consulting with an experienced employment attorney can be a decisive step towards justice. Reach out to The Law Offices of Jeremy Pasternak for expert guidance and to ensure your case is handled with the urgency and attention it deserves.

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