Fred Salerno began working for Coach in 2007 and continued to work for the New York-based company until he was fired in 2013. Salerno, who filed suit on August 10th in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, renewed his employment contract with Coach in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and in 2012. The final contract in 2012 lasted for a year and a half and when that period ended, no new agreement was negotiated. Yet Salerno kept working. On July 26th, 2013, he was injured on the job, he reported it on July 29th, and he was fired on July 30th. The complaint claims that Salerno’s “termination jeopardized clear public policy” and as such, he is due just shy of $1.3 million. Let’s see how likely he is to get what he wants.
The first thing to understand about an employment suit in New York, and Salerno’s first hurdle, is that The Empire State is an employment-at-will state. This means that employers can fire an employee and an employee can quit a job without cause. According to New York’s Department of Labor, “If there is no contract to restrict firing (like a collective bargaining agreement) an employer has the right to discharge an employee at any time for any reason. This also protects the employee's right to resign. An employer may fire an employee for ‘no reason.’ An employer may also fire an employee for a reason that might seem arbitrary and unfair. The employee is equally free to quit at any time without needing to explain or defend that decision.” As usual, there are exceptions that prohibit discrimination based on things like race, religion, age, gender, and sexual orientation. NY’s Labor Law also bars an employer from firing an employee who makes a complaint about the employer.
Basically, this means that employers in New York have a lot of latitude when it comes to firing employees, which is not good for Salerno. But employment-at-will applies only when the employment term is indefinite. In Salerno’s case, each employment contract seemed to be for a fixed term, which means the at-will doctrine does not apply.
The next thing that could work against Salerno is the fact that his employment contract had expired. The last contract was signed on February 10, 2012 and was for a period of a year and a half. According to the complaint, Salerno, in “justifiable reliance of an extension continued working beyond the expiration of the contract date” because “there exists a legally cognizable presumption of continuance of employment for another year at the same salary if employment continues beyond the fixed period.” In other words, the complaint alleges that there was an implied employment contract in effect.
Several cases support the suggestion that Salerno’s employment continued beyond the fixed date set by the contract. In Shenn v. Fair-Tex Mills, Inc., for example, theAppellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York for the First Department noted that the “general rule is that where one enters the employment of another for a fixed period at a stated annual salary, and the employment continues beyond that period, the presumption is continuance of the relationship for another year at the same salary.” So it’s likely that even though the contract had expired, the fact that Salerno continued on as normal means that he could presume the employment relationship continued under the same terms.
And finally, there’s the issue of workers’ compensation. Since Salerno was allegedly injured on the job, he should, in theory, be eligible for workers’ comp. According to the complaint, Coach, “in contravention of New York State Law, failed to provide worker' s compensation benefits.” To be eligible for workers' compensation benefits in NY, Salerno must prove that he was an employee (as opposed to an independent contractor) and that his injury arose out of and in the course of his employment. The complaint just states that he “sustained an on-the -job injury on Friday, July 26,2013 and reported the injury three days later,” so it’s hard to know if he’d meet these requirements.
All in all, and based solely on the limited facts given in the complaint, it seems like Salerno may have a leg to stand on. Salerno’s complaint was only recently filed, so Coach has yet to respond. Our guess is that if Coach is guilty of any wrongdoing, the matter will be settled quietly. If, on the other hand, Coach’s actions were just, well, we should expect a fight.
JENNIFER WILLIAMS is a recent law school graduate who writes about fashion, the legal avenues available for protecting it, and the ways in which the laws are falling short. She is currently awaiting admission to the NY State Bar. For more from Jennifer, follow her on Twitter.