Understandably, many of our clients and potential clients do not know some of the basics of employment law in New Jersey. Some people feel that they can sue their former employer because they were fired without cause. This is not the case, unless the employee had a contract of employment.
New Jersey is an at-will employment state. This means that your employer can let you go at any time, with or without notice, for a good reason, a bad reason, or for no reason at all, as long as it is not an illegal reason, and as long as you do not have an employment contract.
However, many employers do terminate employees illegally, so if you feel that you were terminated wrongly, it would be wise to find out whether the termination was legal. If you lost your job because you complained about discrimination or some other unlawful activity in the workplace, or because you belong to a protected class (determined by race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, gender identity, etc.), then the termination was illegal.
In looking at this issue, it is important to note the distinction between what is fair and what is legal.
Most people would agree that it is reasonable for an employer to fire an employee because the employee does a bad job. Many people would agree that it is reasonable to fire an employee because the employer is having financial difficulties. Many people would also agree that it is not reasonable for an employer to fire an employee because the employer just does not like the employee, even though the employee does a great job. But, absent a contract, it is generally legal for an employer to fire an excellent employee just because the employer does not like the employee – as long as the employer does not dislike the employee because the employee is a whistleblower or belongs to a protected class. What is not legal, is to fire an employee because the employee is African-American, is a woman, is disabled, or is pregnant, etc. Likewise, it is not legal to fire an employee because the employee blew the whistle on illegal activities or complained of discrimination in the workplace.
It may not seem fair for employers to fire employees for personal or nonsensical reasons, but what is legal is not always fair, and vice versa. Keep in mind, though, that employers do not often state outright that they are terminating employees because of discrimination or retaliation. Again, if you feel that you were terminated unfairly, it is a good idea to explore whether you were also terminated illegally.
On the other hand, many employees also wrongly believe that they must give their employers two weeks’ notice when they are going to leave a job. Unless you have a contract of employment, the law does not require you to give notice before quitting. This is the other side of employment at will. Generally speaking, it is legal to quit your job with no notice at all, even though doing so would show a lack of common courtesy. In addition, this might not be advisable for many reasons, including the fact that you might not get a good reference from your former employer.
By Jennifer Vorih, Esq. and Ty Hyderally, Esq.
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