The Warshawsky Law Firm Blog

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Do I Have A Case For Wrongful Termination?

Many employment lawyers, myself included, advertise that they handle "wrongful termination" cases?  What does this mean?  When a person is fired, how does the person know if he or she has a case for wrongful termination?  Here is the basic analysis that employment lawyers use in these cases.

The starting point is the doctrine of "at will" employment.  "At will" employment means that a company has no legal obligation to continue employing a particular person.  In blunt terms, this means that the company can fire an employee at any time, for any reason, or even for no reason.  But a company may not fire an employee for an illegal reason (more on that next).  The upshot is that if a company decides to fire an employee, the law presumes that the termination was lawful, unless the employee can show that he or she was fired for an illegal reason.

It is not illegal to fire an employee "without cause" (unless the employee is a party to an employment contract or collective bargaining agreement that requires terminations "for cause").  Nor is it illegal to fire an employee for a reason that is "unfair," for example, a mistaken accusation of workplace theft.  Although the various federal, state, and city employment laws provide many protections for employees, none of them prohibit "unfair" treatment.

What do they prohibit?  Primarily, they prohibit "discriminating" against an employee based on one or more “protected characteristics.” The term “protected characteristics” refers to certain physical and social traits that are deemed by the law to be unrelated to a worker’s occupational abilities, including age, sex/gender, race/ethnicity, religion, marital status, pregnancy, disability, and sexual orientation. Employers may not make employment decisions, including terminations, based on an employee’s protected characteristics.  This includes treating employees differently depending on their different protected characteristics.  For example, it is not illegal to terminate an employee for fighting in the workplace; but it is illegal  to terminate only certain kinds of employees for fighting in the workplace, but not others, for example, men but not women.  This is called "disparate treatment" and it is a type of discrimination prohibited by federal, state, and city employment laws.

The main anti-discrimination laws are Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 1981, the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL), and the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL).  Several other laws also provide employees with certain protections from being wrongfully terminated, including the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), and the New York State Labor Law.

In deciding whether or not a person has a case for "wrongful termination," the ultimate question is whether the employer violated one or more of these laws in deciding to fire the employee.  If not, then no wrongful termination occurred.  But if the employer violated these laws, then the employee has the right to pursue legal action against the company.          

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