As most employers are aware, New York is an “employment-at- will” state. This means that without a contract (or collective bargaining agreement) restricting the reasons for termination, an employer has the right to discharge an employee at any time for any reason, even if that reason seems completely arbitrary and unfair. In fact, an employer may even terminate an employee for no reason at all. On the same note, employees in New York are equally free to quit their jobs at any time without being required to explain or defend their decision.
However, although it’s an “at-will” state, it is nonetheless so important, when disciplining or terminating an employee, for employers in New York to provide that employee with a coherent and consistent explanation for the adverse employment action taken.
Why? Because any inconsistent or conflicting reasons given in the future will only strengthen an employee’s claim for discrimination or unlawful retaliation. And believe me when I say that plaintiffs’ attorneys jump all over this and will exploit the inconsistencies to the end.
In order to prove discrimination, the employee must first establish a prima facie case by demonstrating that: (1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) her job performance was satisfactory; (3) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) the action occurred under conditions giving rise to an inference of discrimination. If the plaintiff makes out a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the action. If the employer makes such a showing, the burden shifts back to the employee to show that the employer’s proffered reason is pretextual.
Pretext generally refers to a reason that is false and offered to cover up the true motives or intentions. Pretext can be established by showing that the employer’s explanation for termination is not credible. And here’s the kicker – New York courts have held that an employee may show pretext by demonstrating inconsistencies, incoherencies, or contradictions in the employer’s proffered “legitimate” reasons for its action. It is thus reasonable for a jury to find the proffered reason(s) unworthy of credence and hence infer that the employer did not act for the asserted non-discriminatory reasons.
As a New York employment attorney, I always advise employers in New York to decide on a reason for termination, give that reason to the employee at the time of termination, and never contradict or change that reason in the future. By neglecting to give the employee any reason for the termination, employers only leave the door open for that employee to allege discrimination in the future.