With political tensions at an arguably all-time-high, many activists have begun seeking out their political rivals’ employers and getting those rivals fired. If this has happened to you, then depending on what exactly was said to your employer, the person reaching out and ultimately causing your termination may be responsible for paying your lost wages.
Traditionally, there’s a cause of action where a Plaintiff (the person wronged) can sue a Defendant for interfering with a contract; it’s called intentional interference with a contractual relationship. The problem in California—and other states with default at-will employment relationships—is just that: employment at-will means employees can be terminated for essentially any reason. So how do you, an at-will employee, get recourse if you’re fired as a result of conduct by third parties?
One answer is to sue the wrongdoer for “intentional interference with a prospective economic advantage.” For employees, that mouthful of legalese basically means “someone got me fired or disciplined at work and did so in an unlawful way.” It is the route for people who are wronged and lose something that they otherwise would have gotten if not for the wrongful—and I emphasize that word intentionally—interference.
To state a claim for intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, you must show: (1) an economic relationship between you and your employer, with the probability of some future economic benefit to you; (2) the defendant’s knowledge of your relationship with your employer; (3) intentional acts on the defendant’s part designed to disrupt the relationship; (4) actual disruption of the relationship; (5) economic harm to you which was caused by the defendant’s acts; and (6) the defendant’s acts were “wrongful by some legal measure other than the fact of interference itself.” Korea Supply Co. v. Lockheed Martin Corp. (2003) 29 C4th 1134, 1153-1154, 131 CR2d 29, 45.
Here’s what this looks like: Plaintiff Paul works for a hypothetical company—we’ll call it MajorTechGiant Corp. Paul’s employment means that he has a probability of receiving money—“future economic benefits”—while he works for MajorTechGiant. Defendant Derrick is scrolling through social media, sees Paul’s political post, becomes irate about Paul’s message, finds out where Paul works, and contacts Paul’s employer, MajorTechGiant, to get him fired or disciplined. If MajorTechGiant fires Paul based on Derrick’s conduct, Paul may have recourse against not only the company, but also Derrick.
The question of whether Paul can recover money from Derrick usually depends on whether Derrick “wrongfully” interfered with Paul’s relationship with MajorTechGiant. Though Paul may feel “wronged” by the fact Derrick contacted his employer to try and get him fired, that alone does not make Derrick’s conduct “wrongful” in the eyes of the law. The “wrongful” element is satisfied by showing that Derrick did something legally wrong in-and-of itself.
The most common example of “legally wrongful” conduct in this setting is defamation—e.g., Derrick made statements of fact about Paul to MajorTechGiant that are provably false, not just Derrick’s opinion, or rhetoric. For example, calling Paul a “jerk” may be offensive, but it’s not something that can be proven true or false – so it’s not defamatory, and therefore, not grounds to sue for being fired. Similarly, if Derrick simply sends MajorTechGiant a copy of Paul’s social media post, unaccompanied by other statements, that is not per se unlawful. On the other hand, if Derrick reaches out to MajorTechGiant to falsely state that Paul has violently assaulted people, that is defamation that will support a claim of interference. Of course, these are bright-lined examples; in practice, it is not always easy to determine when statements are defamatory or just opinion, the former being “wrongful,” in the law’s eyes, but the latter being protected speech.
More broadly, there are countless ways in which an interference might be “unlawful,” some of which are easier to determine than others. Though the case law is sparse and primarily involving defamation, “independently wrongful” conduct has been explained by courts broadly as conduct violating any “constitutional, statutory, regulatory, common law, or other determinable legal standard.” Korea Supply Co. v. Lockheed Martin Corp. (2003) 29 C.4th 1134, 1159, 131 C.R.2d 29, 63 P.3d 937.
Whether you are disciplined, terminated, or even just receiving a warning at work because someone contacted your employer to get you fired, you should seek competent counsel for advice on these matters, including defamation and employment law issues. Our attorneys at the Dhillon Law Group are happy to speak with you about these issues.
Dante Quilici is an associate who handles employment litigation and counseling at Dhillon Law Group, Inc.