Arthur R. Lehman, L.L.C.

Exceptions to the 'at-will' doctrine in New York

Like many other states in this country, New York adheres to the "employment at-will" doctrine. The employment at-will doctrine provides an employer can fire a New York employee, for any reason or for no reason at all, unless there is some other law or contractual provision that prohibits the employer from doing so.

Although many employers in New York are very careful to preserve their right to terminate "at-will," in many lines of work, it is common or even expected that an employer will offer its employees employment contracts that specify under what circumstances an employer can fire an individual employee. Furthermore, New York courts have been willing to hold employers accountable for not following the provisions in an employee handbook regarding termination.

Thus, even if a New York employee does not have a written contract with an employer, the handbook might offer protection if the handbook, for example, describes a progressive discipline process which the employer did not follow.

The key in both of these cases is almost always what the contract, or handbook, specifically said, as New York courts will hold employers to their agreements with employees. If someone feels that he or she was fired unfairly by a New York employer, he or she should therefore gather all contracts, handbooks, and, possibly, other important documents like emails, etc. which may clarify the meaning of a contract or handbook provision.

Because the interpretation of a contract or handbook will generally be left to the courts, it also may be important to have the assistance of an experienced New York attorney who handles employee representation.

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