Severing an employment relationship can be difficult for both an employer and an employee. A fired employee may not only experience financial difficulty, but may also have feelings of anger, betrayal, and a diminished self-worth. Many people who are fired look for retribution against their former employers, and wonder what their rights are given what they perceive as an unfair termination from employment. Employers, on the other hand, may want to be proactive in protecting themselves from baseless lawsuits, such as by carefully documenting the legitimate basis for the termination, and ensuring that the termination is not in violation of an employment contract or state or federal statute.
When I receive calls from people seeking legal advice regarding their termination from employment, I find myself giving the same explanation of the general state of the law and their potential rights in light of the firing. It goes something like this:
New York is an at-will employment state. That means that, barring certain exceptions, an employee may be fired for any reason, or no reason at all. The exceptions to this general rule include, but are not limited to, employees who have an employment contract, are members of a union, or have civil service rights under the New York Civil Service Law. If the employment does not fall within an exception to the at-will doctrine, the employee may be fired for any reason except an unlawful one. An unlawful reason for firing generally includes a discriminatory reason, such as by reason of race, religion, age, disability, or gender, which includes claims for sexual harassment and hostile work environment.
If a fired employee falls within one of the exceptions to the general at-will doctrine, that person may have recourse upon their termination from employment. The employee may be entitled to reinstatement, lost wages, a hearing if the termination was based on misconduct, or other remedies against the former employer.
If an at-will employee believes his termination was discriminatory, the employee must still demonstrate that the discriminatory reason either contributed to the termination, or in some cases that it was the motivating factor in the firing. That means that even if the fired employee believes that he was fired for a discriminatory reason, the employer may still defeat the claim if it has a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the firing. A prevailing plaintiff under the various state and federal anti-discrimination statutes may be entitled to such remedies as reinstatement, lost wages, emotional distress damages, and possibly even punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.
There are a multitude of other scenarios not discussed here that may also result in employment claims upon the firing of employees, such as when an employee is fired after complaining about an issue causing a substantial threat to public health or safety, or when a public employee is fired after exercising his First Amendment rights in the workplace. Whatever the specific case may be, the point is that while it is natural to look back on a failed employment relationship with consternation, the question of whether a fired employee has legal recourse requires a measure of objective analysis. If you are an employee or employer seeking legal advice regarding termination from employment, please contact us at (845) 778-2121.
Kara J. Cavallo is an associate on our Litigation Team. She can be reached by calling 845-778-2121 toll free or 845-778-2121 and by email.