Reminder: New York is an at-will employment state

Not all bad things at work can support a lawsuit. Any plaintiff's lawyer has said this countless times to potential clients who want to sue over unfair managerial treatment. This case illustrates how it all shakes out.

The case is Dowrich-Weeks v. Cooper Square Realty, a summary order decided on August 21. The lay person may not know this, but New York is an employment at-will state, which means that management can do whatever it wants so long as it does not violate specific statutes, i.e., those prohibiting racial or gender or other forms of discrimination. The prohibitions are few, and management has wide leeway to run its business.

Plaintiff says she was discriminated against because of gender, race, and religion. As summarized by the Court of Appeals, "Weeks alleges that she endured the following adverse employment actions: (1) A Cooper Square vice-president made negative remarks about her to a client; (2) Weeks was moved from an office to a cubicle; (3) Weeks was not permitted to take advantage of an alternative work schedule that allowed periodic work from home; and (4) Weeks was 'demoted' from 'Residential Manager' with oversight responsibilities over four-to-five residential properties to 'On-Site Property Manager' with oversight responsibilities over only one property."

Her claim fails. "None of the first three actions constitutes 'a materially adverse change in the terms and conditions of employment' because such actions 'must be more disruptive than a mere convenience or an alteration of job responsibilities.'” In other words, these bad acts are not substantial enough to predicate a federal lawsuit. "As to the fourth action, Weeks alleges no facts supporting her conclusory assertion that she was 'demoted,' such as her having received 'a decrease in wage or salary, a less distinguished title, a material loss of benefits, significantly diminished material responsibilities, or other indices unique to a particular situation.'”

Plaintiff also claims constructive discharge. You can win that claim if working conditions are so horrible that you have no choice but to leave. Courts don't like these claims; they don't want employees taking things into their own hands. Plaintiff's working conditions were not so terrible that she had to quit, the Court of Appeals says. "The allegations presented in the complaint as described supra do not rise to this level when considered either individually or cumulatively." Further weakening her claim is plaintiff's statement in her complaint that she left her job because she could not find child care.