We often get telephone calls from employees who would like to sue their employers for reasons that they believe are protected but are not. Here are five common examples of rights that many employees believe they have but (generally) do not.
Because it is very difficult for a lay person to assess whether they may have a legitimate claim against their employer, even if your complaint falls under one of these categories, it can never hurt to speak to an experienced employment attorney about your situation – there are caveats and exceptions to every situation. We are always happy to speak to employees even if we are ultimately unable to help them.
- The Right to be Terminated “For Cause.” Most employees in New York are “at will” employees which means that they can be terminated any time for any reason as long as the reason is not discriminatory (for example, because of their race, gender, national origin, etc.) or retaliatory (for example, for making specific types of complaints).
- The Right to be Free From “Bullying”, Inappropriate Behavior or a “Hostile Work Environment”. Unless your employer is bullying you because of your race, gender or other protected reason, you generally cannot sue an employer, coworker or supervisor for treating you poorly. And even when you are being harassed because of your protected status the law is harsher than one may expect for that harassment to rise to the level of a “hostile work environment” sufficient to justify you quitting your job and then suing your employer.
- The Right to be Free From “Retaliation”. Employees are only protected from retaliation for very specific types of complaints. Generally a statute is required to protect the type of complaint you have made from retaliation. For example, Title VII, FMLA, the New York State Human Rights Law and various federal statutes applicable to railway workers or environmental issues protect complaints related to alleged violations of those statutes from retaliation. However, if you merely report that your supervisor did something you didn't like or violated company policy, and your employer then fires you for not being a team player, you are generally not protected.
- The Right to “Free Speech”. If you work for a private employer, you do not have any first amendment protection. You may have some federal or state protection for speech related to your employment, but you do not have a general right to be protected from termination for general speech. So, for example, if you say something unrelated to your employment on your Facebook page and your employer doesn't like it, you can be fired. Public employees do enjoy some free speech rights but they are very limited.