One of the most frequent questions that we receive from potential employment clients is whether they can sue their former employer for wrongful termination. The scenario typically plays out one of two ways:
Scenario 1: Terri has been employed by Smith & Co. for five years. She has been a good employee, without any real problems. Smith & Co. has recently undergone some changes, and Terri now has a new team leader, Rich, who has been giving her a hard time about several things.
Within two months of Rich taking over Terri is placed on a performance improvement plan. Within a month of that she is called in to the office and told that things are just not working out. Terri, who has a spouse and two kids at home, is beside herself. She simply cannot fathom that her work performance has fallen so much over the course of three months to justify her termination.
Terri calls us and wonders if she has any claim against Smith & Co. for “wrongful termination.”
Scenario 2: John is looking for a job and applies with Smith & Co. The job is in a cutting edge field and John has minimal experience, but he interviews well and is hired with the understanding that he'll be given training when he comes on.
When John starts he's given training, but it is minimal, and the company is very busy so he's thrown to the fire quickly. His performance immediately falls behind and he is terminated three weeks after hire.
John calls us and wonders if he has any claim against Smith & Co. for “wrongful termination.”
New York Does Not, generally, recognize a claim for “Wrongful Termination”
Unfortunately for Terri and John, we are often forced to give the same answer – New York law does not generally recognize a claim for wrongful termination. Since New York is an “at-will” employment state, employers are generally permitted to hire and fire at will – just as employees are permitted to accept a job and then quit a few days later.
In Terri's case the first thing we would want to know is whether there was anything underlying the termination which may lead to a claim for discrimination. Were there comments about her gender, age, something else? Did Rich treat others differently, including men? Did she recently take a medical leave? Each of these would potentially give Terri a claim for discrimination.
As for John, unfortunately he may be out of luck. An employer in New York is not required to give proper training, and can throw an employee to the fire. The lesson for John is to be very careful about the company that you choose to do work for. The interview should be as much about them as it is about you. Because, unfortunately, if things go south an employee's options are often limited.
If you have questions about employment discrimination or “wrongful termination” in New York give us a call. We're happy to help.