In California, the employee-employer relationship is typically treated as an "at will" affiliation, save any evidence of a contract or a specific law to the contrary. This means that either the employer or the employee has the right to terminate the affiliation without notice or good cause. This is not to say that it is acceptable for an employer to fire an employee for any reason in some situations.
Pursuant to both federal and state laws, there are many exceptions to the employment at will doctrine. Not infrequently, the exceptions have all but swallowed the default rule of employment at will, such that employers are typically best served by treating every employee as if he or she may have a valid legal claim.
Therefore, employers should be aware of the exceptions to the employment at will doctrine, which include: discrimination based on race, gender, age, disability, pregnancy or childbirth, religion, marital status, genetic information, AIDS/HIV, medical condition, political activities or affiliations, military or veteran status, status as a victim of domestic violence, assault, or stalking.
Within these exceptions, there are various different characteristics and activities that may not be considered by the average person as falling within the realm of discrimination but are no less unlawful. For instance, while many employers are fully aware that they must reasonably accommodate their workers in the practice of their religion, such as offering time off to observe religious ceremonies or holidays, many do not stop to consider that the barring of any religious symbols such as jewelry, clothing, or even grooming practices may also involve a finding of unlawful discrimination. Therefore, an otherwise non-discriminatory policy may actually give rise to a claim of unlawful discrimination if not properly drafted.
Discrimination in the workplace is not always as obvious as one might think, nor is it always intentional. Actions taken by an employer that are discriminatory can occur at any time throughout the timeline of employment. These acts can happen:
One example of unlawful discrimination which may be unintentional involves a situation where an employer's policy does not provide for any exceptions. For instance, if a current employee has suffered an injury or sickness which would cause them to request a reasonable accommodation, such as a change in schedule, and a supervisor enforces the "no exceptions" policy in preventing the employee from requesting or receiving such a modification, there may be grounds for the employee to allege that the employer's policy is discriminatory and therefore a violation of state and/or federal law, whether the employer intentionally discriminated against the employee or not.
The reason for this result is that anti-discrimination laws require employers to grant a requested reasonable accommodation to an employee if the employee has a qualifying disability as defined by the applicable state and federal statutes. Even an apparently non-discriminatory policy can violate anti-discrimination laws if an employer is not careful. Each situation requires a fact-specific analysis to determine whether an employee may have a legal claim against an employer.
In contrast, there are some cases in which an employer may not be able or required to grant a requested accommodation because it constitutes an undue hardship for the employer, or for other reasons. The "undue hardship" exclusion, which is normally interpreted as meaning the accommodation would be too costly to the company, tends to be available more frequently to small businesses as they typically have fewer resources to absorb absences or changes in schedules.
Some of the most common types of cases which are asserted against employers as exceptions to the employment at will doctrine include sexual harassment and age discrimination. These, like other employment discrimination cases, must be proven using either direct or circumstantial evidence.
Direct evidence is evidence that proves a certain event happened without use of speculation. For example, if Billy testifies that he saw Bobby make a sexual advance on Sally, that would be direct evidence because it tells the story of what happened without any speculation.
In contrast, circumstantial evidence is a piece of evidence which relies on inference to connect it to a conclusion of fact. An example of this type of evidence would be: if Billy testifies that he saw Bobby and Sally in the break room talking, then Sally got angry and stormed off. There is no proof of what their conversation was about; the testimony only confirms that Bobby and Sally did in fact have a conversation and that Sally didn't agree with what Bobby said.
The majority of employment discrimination cases do not have direct evidence and must therefore rely on circumstantial evidence which requires the trier of fact to make inferences based on the evidence provided.
This, of course, is a very broad overview of the applicable laws. For a more fact-intensive analysis of your own specific situation, it is imperative to seek out a skilled employment law attorney. Employment law attorneys are specially trained to carefully gather information about your case and will compare it to recent authoritative opinions in order to help you determine your best course of action for your particular set of circumstances.