California claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy

The California Court of Appeals has issued a new decision about illegal firing in violation of public policy.

In December 2014, the California Court of Appeal for the Sixth District in San Jose issued an employment law decision that further clarified the state cause of action against an employer for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. In Ferrick v. Santa Clara University, the court held that an allegation that an employee was fired for reporting a colleague's probable illegal activity - commercial bribery - to the employee's supervisor stated a potential Tameny claim.

Illegal termination from employment

In general, an employer can terminate an employee at will, meaning for any reason or for no reason at all, with two major exceptions. The discharge may not violate the terms of an employment contract, nor may the firing be for an unlawful reason. For example, the job termination may not be based on illegal discrimination based on race, sex, disability, age or another protected category; an employee filing a workers' compensation claim; or another illegal reason.

Discharge in violation of public policy

According to California common law (judge or court made), it is also unlawful for an employer to fire someone in violation of public policy, based on the 1980 California Supreme Court case of Tameny v. Atlantic Richfield Co.

In Ferrick, the trial court first held that the plaintiff had not alleged facts that would support such a claim. However, the appeals court reversed, finding that one of several bases put forth by the terminated employee could potentially support a claim of wrongful termination in violation of public policy, so that the plaintiff should have her day in court to try to prove her allegations.

Public-policy standards

In such a lawsuit, the public policy alleged to have been violated must meet the following standards, according to the Ferrick court:

  • The policy must have support in the state or federal constitution, a statute or a regulation.
  • The policy must benefit the public at large.
  • The policy must have been already "articulated" at the time of firing.
  • The policy must be "sufficiently clear," "fundamental" and "substantial."

The appeals court held that Ferrick's assertion that she was let go because she had told her employer, a private university, about a colleague's activity that the plaintiff reasonably thought might constitute commercial bribery was sufficient to state a potential Tameny claim. The public policy invoked was based on the state Labor Code section that forbids an employer from retaliating against an employee-whistleblower for reporting a reasonable belief of criminal acts at work.

Before being fired, Ferrick had reported that her colleague was allegedly taking kick-back money for steering university departments into off-campus leases with a particular landlord.

Seek experienced legal counsel

It remains to be seen whether Ferrick will be appealed further, but in the meantime any Californian who believes that he or she has been unfairly fired based on public policy or another illegal reason should seek the immediate advice and guidance of a knowledgeable California employment law attorney.

In the San Francisco Bay area, the employment law firm of Baker Curtis & Schwartz, P.C., represents employees in wrongful termination matters, as well as other employment law problems.

Keywords: California Court of Appeals, decision, illegal firing, public policy, violation, employment, wrongful termination, Ferrick, Tameny, at will employment, exception, discharge, retailiation