Sales executive may have grounds to sue company that fired him



I was a senior business executive with a Fortune 30 company. I ranked among the top 100 salespeople out of 55,000, despite being there for just 20 months. Because things were going so well for me, I turned down four job offers in 2004. Then early this year a new vice president joined the department. He wanted me to move to the company's office in the Midwest. I agreed and had begun planning to relocate with my family.

But a month later, when my family and I were in the throes of planning for our big move, he called me in and fired me. His about-face has caused my family and me tremendous emotional turmoil. I'm also angry that after bringing millions of dollars to this company I was just tossed aside like an old shoe. Four weeks' severance doesn't even soften the blow because he revoked all my stock grants. What are my rights?

Your situation, sadly, isn't unusual, said Sheree Gootzeit Donath, senior associate at Sklover & Associates LLC, a New York law firm that focuses on executive employment issues.

New department heads typically bring a new crew on board when they take over, she said. At that time, workers without employment contracts are always "extra vulnerable" to job loss, even valuable employees.

If you're an at-will employee, meaning you aren't covered by an employment contract, you and your employer can legally end the employment relationship at any time, "even in the mean-spirited way you were let go," she said.

But you may have legal and practical ways to obtain fairer treatment, Gootzeit Donath said.

First, you must be paid all that you're owed, including such things as unpaid salary, bonuses, expense reimbursements and vested stock options, she said.

Second, you may also have valid legal claims against your employer if you took "reasonable" actions based on the company's plan to relocate you.

Third, you may have a valid legal claim for a variety of contract breaches, even if you have no written agreement, she said. Assurances that things were going well for you, employee handbook rules requiring a warning or notice before firing, even the company's usual practices and customs may each rise to what the law considers contracts, she said.

Carrie Mason-Draffen writes for Newsday.

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