Employees who have been let go from a job often want to know if they have a case for wrongful termination.
Many states, including New York, are “at-will” employment states. This means employers can legally fire employees for reasons that seem unfair but are not illegal. However, there are exceptions to the “at-will” employment rule that could make a firing illegal. These exceptions include:
- Discrimination (based on protected characteristics like race, age, religion, gender and disability);
- Retaliation for reporting illegal conduct or whistleblowing;
- Breaching an employment contract.
Each of these exceptions is discussed in more detail below.
Discrimination can constitute wrongful termination. There are federal and state laws that prohibit employers from taking any type of adverse employment action, including termination, based on protected characteristics like race, age, religion, gender and disability. The main federal anti-discrimination laws are Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These federal anti-discrimination laws are enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If you worked for an employer with at least 15 employees (20 in cases of age discrimination), and you believe you were discriminated against, you can file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. New York State also has its own anti-discrimination law, the Human Rights Law. The New York Division of Human Rights will investigate charges of discrimination against employers that have at least four employees (and there is no minimum number of employees for complaints of sexual harassment).
Retaliation can also constitute wrongful termination. It is illegal to take an adverse employment action against an employee in retaliation for reporting illegal conduct or whistleblowing. Retaliation for reporting discrimination is illegal under the federal and state anti-discrimination laws described above. In New York, it is also illegal to retaliate against an employee for reporting or complaining about pay or other possible labor law violations. The federal wage and hour law, known as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) also prohibits retaliation for complaining about wage and hour issues. There are also many federal and state laws that protect employees who speak up about fraud or refuse to participate in fraud committed by their employer.
Breach of Contract
Breaching an employment contract can also constitute wrongful termination. Employees who have an employment contract may be protected against being fired for no reason if their contract provides they can only be terminated for cause. Employment contracts may also provide employees protections against other adverse employment actions. Employers who violate an employment contract can be sued for breach of contract. In New York, employees have six years to sue for breach of contract.
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