While most workers in Los Angeles are at-will employees who can be fired or terminated for any reason, there are several important exceptions to this rule. One of those exceptions is that employers cannot fire someone for exercising their First Amendment rights.
Employees who engage in protected political activities benefit from the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA. This law makes it a wrongful termination to retaliate against a worker for taking a political stance. Workers who are fired in violation of the FEHA stand to recover compensation for their ordeals.
In this article, our Los Angeles employment attorneys answer the following questions:
- What is a Protected Political Activity Under the FEHA?
- How is the FEHA Different from the First Amendment?
- Do I Have to Be Fired or Let Go to Have a Case?
- What Kind of Compensation Can I Recover in a Wrongful Termination Claim?
- Can the Employer Face Criminal Penalties?
The California Fair Employment and Housing Act forbid employers from using the “loss of employment” or the “threat of discharge” to coerce or influence someone’s political beliefs or activities. It also prohibits them from keeping any employment policy that controls or directs the political activities of their employees.
This includes conduct like:
- Running for office
- Voting for a particular candidate
- Canvassing for a presidential nominee
- Publicly criticizing a political figure or party
In order for political activity to be protected under the FEHA, though, it has to occur outside of the workplace. Employers are not allowed to fire or threaten to fire someone for the political activities that they do on their own time. However, if they bring their political activism into the workplace, it can lead to a discharge that would not be a wrongful termination.
So, for example, imagine a seamstress in Los Angeles who is a staunch Democrat, but the sewing company she works for often donates to Republican candidates running for office. If she gets fired for campaigning for a Democrat candidate on a weekend, it would be a wrongful termination. However, if she uses her position to sew political messages on clothes or recruit coworkers, she could face discipline and even get fired.
Even if a political activity occurs outside of the workplace, it may still be unprotected by the FEHA if it affects workplace performance or if it violates an employee policy that is not politically motivated.
For example, if the seamstress canvases for candidates on weekends, but has agreed to be available for weekend work shifts if necessary, she may face repercussions if her political activity prevents her from following through on that obligation to her boss.
The FEHA’s protections are important because, contrary to what many people believe, the First Amendment does not grant them these same protections. The First Amendment only applies to government action, not conduct taken by private parties. Unless you work for the federal, state, or local government, the First Amendment does not protect you from retaliation or adverse employment decisions because of your political beliefs or activism. If you work for any private employer or corporation, though, the FEHA does afford these protections.
Workers may have a wrongful termination lawsuit if they have been fired for their FEHA-protected political activity, or if they were constructively terminated.
Easier wrongful termination cases happen when a worker was outright fired by their boss. This includes adverse employment actions that, while they don’t use the language associated with firing a worker, have the same effect, like:
- Terminating or eliminating a worker’s position
- Suspending a worker indefinitely
However, there are lots of other ways to fire a worker without actually firing them. A favorite is to make someone’s working life so miserable that they eventually quit on their own accord.
This tactic is so well known, though, that it has become known as a constructive termination. Workers who have been subjected to terrible treatment that is so bad that a reasonable person in their position would quit, as well, can win wrongful termination cases even though they were the ones who took the initiative and resigned.
For example, if the Los Angeles seamstress is being retaliated against for her political activity, and her boss gives her only the worst working hours and assigns her to a sewing shop that’s three hours away from where she lives, she may have a wrongful termination case if she resigns.
Victims of wrongful termination in Los Angeles can file a lawsuit against their employer. That lawsuit would be a civil claim that argues that their employer should be held liable for their discharge and demands compensation to cover the worker’s losses that stemmed from their termination.
When the wrongful termination claim stems from political activity that is protected by the FEHA, that compensation includes:
- The value of lost wages and benefits
- Mental suffering
- Emotional anguish
Those lost wages and benefits cover the time period from the termination until the court verdict or settlement. However, it does not include wages and benefits that the worker actually earned during that time period at another, substantially similar, job. Furthermore, workers who have been wrongfully terminated for their political activity have a duty to mitigate their damages by actively seeking out another job while their case is pending.
Additionally, employers can be assessed punitive damages for firing someone for their political activity or beliefs. These punitive damages are meant to punish the employer for their conduct by paying you, the victim of their conduct, more than you may need to make a full recovery.
Yes, violating the FEHA and wrongfully discharging a worker for their political activity or beliefs is a crime in Los Angeles.
California Labor Code § 1103 makes violations a misdemeanor offense. Individuals who break the law can be punished with up to a year in jail and up to $1,000 in fines. If the employer was a corporation, on the other hand, there will be no jail time, but the fine increases to a maximum of $5,000.
Contact a Smart, Knowledgeable Employment Attorney In Los Angeles Today
We at Sirmabekian Law Firm, PC have your best interests at heart. We know your rights, and one of them is the right to participate in political activities. If your employer has discriminated against you because of your political activities, contact our office today.
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