The concept of at-will employment can often seem unfair. Many workers who feel they have been fired unjustly hope to take legal action against their former employers, but are disappointed to discover that they do not have sufficient grounds to bring viable lawsuits because the reasons for their terminations were not among those ordinarily proscribed by law. The idea that an at-will termination is non-actionable is all the more disheartening for an employee who moved a great distance to occupy his or her job position.
Fortunately for California residents, the state Labor Code enables employees who have moved in anticipation of starting new jobs to sue their employers in certain instances in which they might otherwise be without remedies. Section 970 of the California Labor Code forbids employers from enticing employees to work for them by falsely representing the type or availability of work they have to offer, the length of time for which that work will last, the compensation to be given for the work, the sanitary and housing conditions surrounding the work, or the existence or nonexistence of any kind of labor dispute that might affect the work.
Section 970 of the Labor Code is supplemented by sections 971 and 972. Section 971 subjects employers who violate section 970 to criminal penalties, while section 972 entitles plaintiffs to recover double damages in civil actions brought under section 970. Together, these three statutes provide California plaintiffs with a powerful means to combat the unjust termination of individuals who have had to make great sacrifices for the sake of their jobs.
Section 970 is applicable in numerous contexts. In the case of Finch v. Brenda Raceway Corp., for example, a plaintiff who had moved after being promised a permanent general manager position at a racetrack was able to recover damages against her employer after she was terminated less than five months after she began working. The plaintiff proved that the employer had made numerous representations to her that the position would be permanent, but that all along, the employer had intended to replace her as soon as possible with another job candidate who had been temporarily unavailable at the time she was hired.
The statue was applied differently in Seubert v. McKesson Corp., a case wherein an employee was able to recover double damages after his termination despite the fact that his employment contract did not guarantee that he would remain in his position for any definite length of time. In Seubert, the plaintiff moved across the country to take a job selling pharmaceutical equipment. Prior to accepting his position and relocating, the plaintiff asked his employer about some prior sales difficulties it had experienced. The employer addressed the plaintiff’s concerns by telling him that customer service would be available for the equipment, and by informing him that the machines he would be selling had received a major corporate endorsement. After accepting the position and moving, the plaintiff discovered that a crucial component was missing from the machines, and that customer service would not be available in some areas. When he raised these issues to his employer, the employer assured him that they would be promptly corrected, but they were not. Customers who had purchased machines from the plaintiff returned them, and, as a result, the plaintiff lost his job. The plaintiff was able to prevail under section 970 because the court found that his employer had misrepresented the nature of the position he had accepted.
While it can often be difficult for an at-will employee to establish a cause of action for wrongful termination, section 970 is available as a potential avenue of recovery for those individuals who were not terminated on the basis of discrimination or retaliation, but who nevertheless uprooted their lives to relocate based on representations made about the jobs they filled that later turned out to be untrue.