Only in specific circumstances. For employees in NY, those circumstances include terminations that are: (1) discriminatory or related to sexual harassment, (2) in retaliation to the employee exercising a legal right, (3) in violation of an employment agreement, employer policy, or employer handbook, or (4) against public policy. Some of these circumstances are intuitive — we all understand what it means for a termination to be discriminatory. Others are less intuitive. What legal rights, for example, are employees entitled to exercise without being retaliated against? What if the termination violated a verbal agreement or unspoken employer policy? What kinds of wrongful terminations are considered to be against public policy?
Many employees assume that being fired for any unfair or untrue reason gives rise to a legal cause of action against their employer. Others assume that, since they are employed at-will, their termination cannot give rise to a cause of action, no matter the reason. They may have even received a written policy or handbook from their employer emphasizing that, as at-will employees, they can be fired for any or no reason at all. The law takes a position between these two viewpoints: While it’s true that an employer can fire an at-will employee for no reason, it can’t fire an at-will employee for any reason. Certain reasons are prohibited by law.
Employees in NY are protected against wrongful termination based upon discrimination by federal, state, and local laws. These laws prohibit employers from taking adverse employment actions, such as terminating employment, against an employee based on certain protected characteristics. The New York City Human Rights Law, for example, prohibits wrongful terminations based upon an employee’s age, race, religion, national origin, gender, disability, marital status, partnership status, caregiver status, sexual and reproductive health decisions, sexual orientation, uniformed service or immigration or citizenship status. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the New York State Human Rights Law similarly prohibit wrongful terminations based upon discrimination.
Like discrimination, sexual harassment cannot form the basis for terminating an employee. Employees may not be terminated for reporting sexual harassment, within the company or to an external agency, or for refusing the sexual advances of a coworker or supervisor. The same protection is afforded to employees who make a complaint on behalf of another employee who has been harassed or encourage that employee to report the harassment.
Employers may not terminate employees in response to their exercising a legal right. This includes filing an internal complaint with human resources or an external complaint (or lawsuit), against their employer. Employees’ protection against retaliation is wide-ranging in NY. It covers many types of leave, such as medical, disability, parental, military, and voting leave.
Public policy in this context refers to the community’s common sense and common conscience. When a termination is said to violate public policy, those are the principles being referred to. Employees may have a legal claim for a termination that violates public policy even if they were employed at-will and even if the termination did not violate any specific law. This exception to the general rules governing at-will employment has been applied where, for example, a law firm required one of its attorneys to act unethically and terminated his employment when he refused.