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At-will employment and wrongful termination

The relationship between an employer and employee is often complex and, at times, can become strained and even contentious. In cases where an employee is fired or let go from a job, he or she is likely to feel slighted and wronged. In most cases, however, the terms of an employment relationship are considered to be at will which means that either an employer or employee can choose to terminate the relationship at any time.

While some may presume that the terms of at-will employment agreements essentially provide employers with "free reign to fire employees," it's important to note that there are times when an employee's termination is wrongful and illegal in nature and he or she may be entitled to compensation and restitution.

Under New York State law, a private-sector employee who is terminated may have just legal cause to sue an employer for wrongful termination if any of the following circumstances apply: 

  • Employee is a union member and therefore protected by a union contract
  • Employment contract bars employer from taking certain actions with regard to termination of employment
  • Employment manual or policies provide an implied contract whereby certain formal procedures and/or steps must be followed prior to an employee's termination
  • Whistleblower protection from retaliation and/or termination
  • New York's Human Rights Law protects employees from termination decisions based upon race, gender, religion, national origin, age, disability and marital status
  • New York's Workers' Compensation Law protects workers who have filed a workers' compensation claim from retaliatory actions including termination

In addition to these state-mandated employment protections, several federal laws also protect at-will employees against termination actions. Individuals who have questions related to whether or not a termination was wrongful and illegal should contact an employment attorney.  

Source: Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, New York State, "Can You Be Fired?," May 11, 2016

FindLaw.com, "At-Will Employment and Wrongful Termination," May 11, 2016

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