The New York at-will employment rule was initially recognized in 1895 in the case of Martin v. New York Life Insurance Company 148 N.Y. at 119. In Martin, the plaintiff, Edward Martin, who began his employment term in 1891, made an annual salary of $10,000, on a month-to-month basis. As such, there was not an explicit agreement for the precise employment term between Mr. Martin and the New York Life Insurance Co. After being discharged by the insurance company, Mr. Martin filed suit and argued that his employment relationship was a yearly one, thus entitling him to his “salary for the balance of the year.” Mr. Martin further asserted that according to Adams v. Fitzpatrick, an 1891 New York case involving a similar hiring agreement, “a general hiring means, as a matter of law, an employment from year to year.” See Adams v. Fitzpatrick, 125 N.Y. 124 (1891). Thus, the two questions presented in Martin were: (1) whether there was sufficient evidence to establish an annual contract between Mr. Martin and the insurance company, and (2) whether the general hiring implied employment by the year. See Martin, 148 N.Y. at 120.
As to the first issue, the court simply stated that the only available evidence was a letter of termination, which the court found to be insufficient to prove the existence of an annual contract between Edward Martin and the New York Life Insurance Company.
The second of issue of whether the general hiring implied employment by the year, however, remained an unsettled question in the state of New York. As a result, the court had to parse the various legal precedents and principles regarding the at-will rule in New York in order to determine whether the general hiring of Mr. Martin implied employment by the year.
As a matter of due course, the court in Martin analyzed the precedent set forth by Adams, and then the court proceeded to distinguish the two cases. The court in Adams, relying on English precedent, found that the contract was equivalent to a general hiring, which, the court stated, “means from year to year.” Adams, 125 N.Y. at 127. According to the Adams court, the notion that a general hiring means from year to year was bolstered by “the fact that an annual compensation was agreed upon.” Adams, 125 N.Y. at 128. Under this rationale, it would be logical to assume that Mr. Martin’s agreement with New York Life Insurance Company was for annual employment. Rather than simply relying on the precedent set forth by Adams, the Martin court inexplicably proceeded to look at a treatise that was authored by Horace C. Wood, a lawyer from Albany, New York. In his treatise, Mr. Wood asserts, “A hiring at so much a day, week, month or year, no time being specified, is an indefinite hiring, and no presumption attaches that it was for a day even, but only at the rate fixed for whatever time the party may serve.” See Martin, 148 N.Y. at 121. In other words, according to Wood’s treatise, a general hiring for an indefinite duration is terminable at the behest of either party, at any time, for any reason. Surprisingly, instead of following the precedent set by the court in Adams, the court in Martin proceeded to apply Mr. Wood’s treatise, thus determining the contract to be an at-will employment.
In the present appeal before this Honorable Court, the facts do not dispute that an employer-employee relationship existed between the Appellant and the Appellee. Further, the facts do not dispute that the Appellant earned an annual salary of $90,000.00 pursuant to the employment agreement entered into in the year 2013. Based on these facts and adhering by the findings of the Martin case, it may be inferred that the employment agreement establishes an at-will employment relationship.
However, let us not overlook that after Martin, beginning in 1982, the New York courts began to consider the potential need for various exceptions to the rule.
The first such case was Weiner v. McGraw-Hill, Inc. 57 N.Y.2d 458, which promulgated the “handbook exception.” In Weiner, the court held that although a hiring of indefinite duration is terminable at-will, an employer could still be liable for arbitrarily discharging an employee. Therefore, an employee could recover for an arbitrary discharge if the employee can establish that the employer had a written policy limiting its right of discharge, which the employee was both aware of and relied detrimentally on in accepting the employment. *****The court in Weiner thus seemingly believed that it had the responsibility of stepping in and recognizing an exception to an inequitable aspect of the at-will rule.
The only other judicially created exception to the at-will rule in New York is the overly narrow “professional exception,” which was set forth in the case of Wieder v. Skala 80 N.Y.2d 628 (1992). In this case, the plaintiff, Howard Wieder, worked as a commercial litigation attorney and was associated with the defendant law firm. Wieder discovered that one of the partners of the firm had made several mistakes in a real estate transaction, which the partner sought to cover up.Upon being confronted by Mr. Wieder, the partner “acknowledged that he had lied about the real estate transaction and later admitted in writing that he had committed ‘several acts of legal malpractice and fraud and [sic] deceit.'” Id. at 632.
Mr. Wieder subsequently made the decision to report the partner’s misconduct to the Appellate Division Disciplinary Committee as required under DR 1-103(A) of the Code of Professional Responsibility. Ultimately, the firm terminated Mr. Wieder, allegedly because he insisted that the firm report the partner’s misconduct. As a result, Mr. Wieder brought a wrongful discharge claim against Skala, his employer. In its narrow decision, the New York State Court of Appeals held that there is an exception produced by DR 1-103(a) because Mr. Wieder had a duty to the New York State Bar to report the misconduct.
Thus, the court in Wieder purportedly created a narrow professional exception to the at-will employment rule.
It is the Appellant’s submissions that the employment agreement entered into in the year 2013 between the Appellant and the Appellee did not include any termination clause, however, the same agreement referred to and urged compliance with the veterinarian’s handbook supplied by the Appellee. Upon perusal of the handbook, the Appellant ascertained that the handbook included termination clause which stated veterinarians will be terminated only for cause or for legitimate business reasons. The handbook, prepared and authorized by the Appellee, anticipated and interpreted the employment agreement as a for-cause agreement and not an at-will agreement. Therefore, provision of the handbook, and reference to such handbook via the agreement falls within the parameters of the Weiner handbook exception.
The Appellant is a medical professional specializing in animal health and treatment, while the Appellee is a health facility specializing in the treatment of animals, and it employs qualified veterinarians like the Appellant who are bound by the NYS Veterinary Medicine: Laws, Rules & Regulations: Article 135.
Article 35 regulates veterinarians, including licensing and professional conduct requirement. The Appellant is duly licensed to practice veterinary medicine within the state of New York. Pursuant to such license, the Appellant is equally obliged to comply with the provisions of NYS Veterinary Medicine: Laws, Rules & Regulations: Article 135 §6714, which stipulates that a veterinarian licensed under Article 35 may report a companion animal’s injury, illness or condition is the result of animal cruelty or a violation of any state or federal law pertaining to the care, treatment, abuse or neglect of a companion animal. Article 35 further provides that a veterinarian who reasonably and in good faith reports or discloses records in accordance with this section shall be immune from liability in the form of damages in any civil or criminal proceeding on account of such reporting or disclosure.
The New York courts have had several other opportunities to recognize further exceptions to the at-will rule. However, they have been failed to do so. Many New York courts have stated that such an alteration to the at-will rule is best left to the Legislature.
In Murphy, for instance, the Court of Appeals had the opportunity to make out a public policy exception to the at-will rule. The employee, Joseph Murphy, was discharged after “his disclosure to top management of alleged accounting improprieties” amounting to more than “$50 million in illegal account manipulations of secret pension reserves which improperly inflated the company’s growth in income and allowed high-ranking officers to reap unwarranted bonuses from a management incentive plan on the part of corporate personnel.”
Similarly, in Sabetay v. Sterling Drug 69 N.Y.2d 329, 336 (1987), the plaintiff asked the court to recognize a public policy exception to the at-will rule. The Court of Appeals held that such a considerable change of employment relationships is “best left to the Legislature because stability and predictability in contractual affairs is a highly desirable jurisprudential value.”
The sole exception that has been recognized by the New York State Legislature is the “whistleblower exception.” See N.Y. Labor Law §740. The “whistleblower exception” has been interpreted, by New York’s highest court, to protect only those employees who report violations that endanger public health or safety. See Remba v. Fed’n Emp’t & Guidance Serv., 545 N.Y.S.2d 140 (N.Y. App. Div. 1989), aff’d, 559 N.E.2d 655 (N.Y. 1990). As a result, employment terminations that are made in bad faith or that stem from the reporting of financial improprieties, such as that in Sabetay and Murphy, respectively, are not covered by the “whistleblower exception,” and thus are not covered under the at-will employment exception.
The peculiar aspect about these decisions is that they stand for the proposition that any modification to the at-will rule is best left to the Legislature. Given that it is overtly clear – through Martin, Wieder, and Weiner – that the Court of Appeals unilaterally created the at-will rule and the non-statutory exceptions, it is flabbergasting that the New York State courts have decided to voluntarily cede their authority to the Legislature.
The New York State Legislature has also refused to recognize more than one exception to the at-will employment rule, thus further entrenching the rule in New York. Despite the Judiciary’s repeated announcements regarding the Legislature’s role in recognizing additional exceptions to the rule, it is evident that the Legislature has – for the most part – also refused to act.
It is high time the judiciary retake the respon
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