September 17, 2019

Employer's personnel policy manual setting out reasons why an employee could be subject to dismissal does not constitute a "written contract" of employment


The Board of Trustees of the Library System [System] dismissed an employee [Plaintiff] from her position with the System. Plaintiff sued, contending that her termination constituted a breach in her contract of employment.

A New York State Supreme Court judge found that Plaintiff was an employee at will and dismissed her complaint. When Plaintiff appealed, the Appellate Division sustained the lower court's ruling, explaining that Plaintiff did not demonstrate that she had a written contract of employment with the System, much less that it had been breached.

While the Library System's "Personnel Policy and Procedure Manual set out a number of reasons why an employee could be terminated such as "unfitness, incompetence, and mental or physical disability, the Appellate Division concluded that this was not a "written contract of employment." Accordingly, the setting out of such reasons for termination in the policy manual "did not limit ... [the System's] right to discharge an employee at will to just and sufficient cause only."

The decision also notes that absent an agreement establishing employment for a fixed duration, an employment relationship is presumed to be a hiring at will, terminable at any time by either party.

Finding that Plaintiff was an employee at will and thus she could be terminated at any time, for any reason, except an unlawful reason, or for no reason whatsoever, the Appellate Division said Plaintiff's "complaint sounding in breach of contract and detrimental reliance was properly dismissed" by Supreme Court.

In contrast, as the Court of Appeals held in Antinore v State, 40 NY2d 6, where an individual is within the ambit of a statutory disciplinary procedure such as Civil Service Law §75 or §3020-a of the Education Law, or a contract disciplinary grievance procedure set out in a collective bargaining agreement, the employee is entitled to administrative due process.

In Antinore the Court explained that a union could bargain away the employee’s statutory disciplinary rights in favor of an alternative disciplinary procedure so long as the alternate procedure provided constitutional due process protections equivalent to those available under the statutory procedure that it replaced.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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