Employment-at-Will

Many employees tell us that they have been subjected to wrongful termination. You know that you have not been treated fairly, and you want to do something about it. But not every wrongful termination is illegal. The employer may have acted unfairly, arbitrarily or even immorally, but employment law in New York State and New York City may not be a help. That is because of the employment-at-will doctrine. The employer can treat its employees badly, so long it acts badly in ways that come within the employment-at-will doctrine.

The employment-at-will doctrine means that your employer has broad discretion to terminate your employment, or to change the terms of your employment, such as your wages, without notice and without having to give a reason. The “theory” is that the employee is free to leave the job at any time, and there is a “bargain” between the employer and the employee. Of course, this is not an even playing field, and the “bargainers” are not equal in leverage. The employer can get along without a particular employee, but the employee will find it harder to live without a paycheck.

The major exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine are statutory exceptions, such as age discrimination, race discrimination, sex discrimination, national origin discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, religious discrimination, disability discrimination and sexual orientation discrimination. Other exceptions include whistleblowers in the workplace, wage and compensation violations, union members who have rights under collective bargaining agreements, and government workers who may be protected by civil service law. If you are a high level employee, you may be lucky enough to have an enforceable contract with your employer, which provides for definite terms, such as duration, compensation and reasons and notice requirements in connection with the termination of your employment.

If you don’t come within exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine, even unfair, discriminatory or harassing treatment will have no chance in court. In one case, a company doctor was fired because she refused to share confidential employee health information without the employee’s consent. The court found her conduct commendable, but dismissed her case because she was an at-will employee. While we sympathize if you have been mistreated in the workplace, and many workers are, there simply may be no legal remedy. The range of unfair actions or morally repugnant actions is much larger than the unfair actions for which you will have a legal remedy. Interestingly, this is not true in many other countries, which have laws providing that an employer can only dismiss “for cause,” similar in many ways to the protections that are provided to union workers under a collective bargaining agreement in the United States.

The expansion of worker’s rights to prevent abusive practices in the workplace is a legislative matter. It is to be hoped that we will see increased legislative vigilance to unfair employment practices. Recent notable achievement in New York City include amendments to the New York City Human Rights Law under The Local Civil Rights Restoration Act of 2005, and the expansion of rights for pregnant workers which went into effect on January 30, 2014.

Contact us online or call us at (212) 949-1001(212) 949-1001 so that we can review whether your employer's wrongful actions are covered by the employment-at-will doctrine.