Understanding Wrongful Termination in New York

An individual may be able to bring a claim for wrongful termination against their now-former employer. New York law generally allows employers to fire employees for any reason that is not discriminatory or retaliatory. Proving wrongful termination usually requires evidence that the employer breached a contractual obligation, or that the termination violated an employment statute. When New York employment attorneys bring a claim for wrongful termination, it is often in combination with claims for discrimination or other violations of city, state, or federal law.

At-Will Employment

Employer-employee relationships in New York are considered to be “at-will employment,” unless an employment contract states otherwise. “At-will employment” allows the employer to terminate the employment arrangement at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all, provided that the termination is not otherwise unlawful. It also allows the employee to quit at any time.

Lawful reasons for firing an at-will employee include:

  • Downsizing;
  • Performance issues;
  • Misconduct; or
  • Conflict of personalities.

Unlawful reasons include:

  • Discrimination on the basis of a protected category like race or sex;
  • Retaliation for reporting or opposing alleged unlawful conduct;
  • Breach of contractual obligations; or
  • Inconsistent application of internal employment policies.

At-will employment is the default rule in every U.S. state but one. In Montana, employers must show “good cause” for terminating a non-probationary employee. MT Code § 39-2-904(1)(b).

Employment Contracts

If a formal employment contract includes provisions regarding termination, the employer is legally obligated to abide by those provisions. This includes contracts between the employer and individual employees, and collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) negotiated on behalf of groups of employees.

An employment contract could limit an employer’s ability to terminate an employee, such as by requiring the employer to use disciplinary procedures before resorting to termination. An employer who fires an employee outside of the procedures established by an employment contract could be liable for wrongful termination under a breach of contract theory.

Some states may allow an employee to recover damages for wrongful termination based on a breach of an implied contract, or breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. New York courts are generally reluctant to recognize such a claim.

Employer Policies

If an employer’s own policies require them to follow a particular procedure with regard to termination, they could be legally liable if they fail to follow those procedures. This type of claim is similar to a breach of contract claim, even if the employer’s policy is not a contract directly between the employer and employee.

Statutory Violation

Laws like the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) prohibit firing an employee on the basis of factors like race, sex, religion, and others. It also bars employers from firing an employer in retaliation for reporting an unlawful employment practice, or for certain other reasons. The federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) prohibits employers from penalizing employees who use the unpaid leave provided by that statute. A former employee can bring a cause of action for retaliation under the NYSHRL, FMLA, or other similar statutes.

Public Policy

Some jurisdictions recognize public policy exceptions to at-will employment. This means that an employer cannot terminate an employee for a reason found to be against the public interest, even if it does not violate a specific statute.

The New York employment lawyers at Phillips & Associates represent employees, former employees, and job seekers in claims for wrongful termination claims and various unlawful workplace practices. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team, please contact us today online or at (866) 229-9441.

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