Can My Employer Terminate Me Based on a False Accusation?

Because New York is an “at-will” employment state, you can be terminated at any time for any reason or no reason at all. But what if your employer terminates you based on a false accusation? 

Whether being terminated based on a false accusation constitutes wrongful termination, or whether a false accusation in the workplace is considered defamation for that matter, are complicated questions that require the advice and guidance of an experienced employment lawyer.

Reasons for False Accusations

Unfortunately, false accusations in the workplace are common, whether due to misunderstandings or for ill-intentioned reasons: a coworker may have a beef with you, a supervisor may be looking for a reason to fire you, or a customer may accuse you of something you didn’t do. 

Nonetheless, being fired based on a false accusation is not considered wrongful termination in most cases. While New York is an at-will state, there are limits to an employer’s ability to terminate an employee. In particular, you cannot be fired for an illegal or discriminatory reason. Although being fired based on a false accusation may not be fair or even ethical, it is not an exception to the at-will rule. 

As an example, if a coworker accuses you of harassment or some other type of misconduct, your employer can fire you based on that accusation, regardless of whether or not it’s true. Unless your employer terminates you in violation of an employment contract or uses the false accusation to conceal a discriminatory reason for firing you, employment laws do not prevent an employer from terminating you based on a false accusation.

It should be noted that employers sometimes use a false accusation to mask an unlawful reason for firing an employee.  For example, an employer who has been wanting to fire an older employee might make up the accusation about that employee stealing money – when that is categorically false. 

Is a False Accusation in the Workplace Defamation?

Defamation in the workplace occurs when an individual’s career or reputation is harmed as a result of a false statement made to a third party. Generally, there are two forms of defamation: slander, which is spoken, and libel, which is written. 

Mere opinion does not constitute defamation, however. To have a valid defamation claim, you must be able to prove that the false statement about you was stated as fact, not opinion. In addition, it is necessary to prove that (1) the statement was made to a third person, (2) the individual making the statement was negligent, and (3) you suffered harm (damages). 

As you can see, your legal options if you have been fired based on a false accusation are limited. Ultimately, working with an experienced employment law attorney can mean the difference between suffering long-term damage to your career and preserving your livelihood.