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Wrongful Termination Explained

As employment lawyers, the most frequent question we receive from potential clients at Famighetti & Weinick, PLLC is about “wrongful termination.”  Wrongful termination is somewhat of a misnomer.  Today’s employment law blog explains why.

In New York, employees are considered “at will,” which means employers can hire or fire employees for any reason or no reason at all.  In fact, generally, employers do not even need justification for firing an employee.  So, even if an employer fires an employee for a mistaken reason, like for example if the employer incorrectly believes the employee stole from the business, the termination is usually not going to be considered “wrongful.”

There are some exceptions to the at will rule.  The clearest exception is when the employer and employee have agreed to alter the at will rule, usually by contract.  Termination clauses in contracts usually prevent employers from terminating employees except “for cause” or “for just cause.”  These terms are typically defined by an employee’s demonstrably poor performance or misconduct.  While individual employees can sometimes bargain for such provisions, most employees protected by contract are union employees.  Unions protect members’ through a Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”), which is a contract which the union bargains for with the employer on behalf of all union members.

New York public employees are also usually afforded more protections than under the at will rule.  Public employees are employees who work for a government such as New York State, a town, county, city, village, library district, school district, or other special district.  Although New York public employees are usually also union members which provides them the protections discussed above, most public employees are also protected by the New York Civil Service Laws which, in general, requires public employers to provide employees with a hearing before termination.   Tenured teachers are also entitled to a hearing.

Employees who do not have a union or a contract are nonetheless protected in some ways.  The at will employment rule is broad, but it is not limitless.  Employers cannot make employment decisions for unlawful reasons.  For example, in New York, employers cannot discriminate against employees based on, among other things, age, race, religion, national origin, sex, gender, disability (or perceived disability), military status, family status, or sexual orientation.  Further, if an employee has complained about discrimination or otherwise opposed discriminatory practices, the employer cannot retaliate against the employee.

In addition to discrimination and retaliation, public employees enjoy some protections under the State and Federal Constitutions.  For example, public employees have some protections under the First Amendment for freedom of speech and association (e.g. political activities), and under the Fourteenth Amendment for equal protection and due process.

Since employers usually hide their unlawful motivations, whether a termination is unlawful or not requires close scrutiny by a trained eye.  The employment lawyers at Famighetti & Weinick, PLLC are experienced at finding these, and other, improper reasons which may give rise to a “wrongful termination” claim.  If you think you’ve been wrongfully terminated, contact us at 631-352-0050 or visit our website at http://wwwlinycemploymentlaw.com to learn more.

Follow us on Facebook to keep apprised of the latest employment law developments. And stay tuned for our upcoming blogs about misunderstandings about other employment law terms such as “hostile work environment” and “whistle blower.”

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