California courts continue to expand the grounds for employees to bring wrongful termination claims against employer. Throughout the years, California courts have repeatedly affirmed this common law claim and its expansion continues to the present day with employees having a “property interest” in their employment. Indeed, the legal challenges for employers continue to mount as this type of claim has a two year window in which the employee can file a lawsuit.
The modern-day origin of the common law, wrong termination in violation of public policy claim came out of the seminal case of Tameny v. Atlantic Richfield Co. where the court confirmed the public policy exception to California’s “at will employment” presumption. Since that decision, courts have affirmed, expanded, and clarified what constitutes “public policy” for purposes of a wrongful termination claim.
Last month, the California appellate courts again expanded basis for bringing such a claim when the overturned a lower court’s decision in Galeotti v. International Union of Operating Engineers Local. In Galeotti, the Plaintiff claimed he was wrongfully terminated for refusing to pay a monetary contribution to the re-election campaigns of union supported candidates. Specifically, Galeotti based his claim on his refusal to accede to extortion, unlawful taking of wages, and finally theft by deceit. The crux of the allegations is when he refused to voluntarily put up the funds to support the union’s chosen candidates, he was at risk of losing his “property” or his employment. Notably, under Penal Code 519, it defines “property” to include “intangible benefits and prerogative(s) susceptible of possession or disposition.” Relying on this definition, the appellate court determined that the loss of such interest was sufficient to support the public policy portion foundation of a wrongful termination claim.
While these types of nuanced decisions may, at first blush, not seem particularly relevant to California employers. However, as these decisions slowly but surely expand the rights of employees, employers are at risk of unwittingly finding themselves in court for what they previously may have presumed to be lawful conduct.