Neema Kassaii ’12 has won second place in a New York State Bar Association writing competition for his article, “Socially Constructing Non-Statutory Exceptions to the New York At-Will Rule to Employment Law.” The Dr. Emanuel Stein and Kenneth Stein Memorial Law Student Writing Competition is sponsored by the Association’s Labor and Employment Section, which will publish the article in its newsletter and online. Kassaii will also receive an award of $2,000.
The article focuses on the at-will rule, which applies to workers hired for an indefinite period of time. “The rule grants the employer the right to terminate employment—and the employee the right to quit—at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all,” Kassaii said. Created by the New York State Court of Appeals in 1895, the rule has been narrowly modified by only three times since then.
The main contention of Kassaii’s article is that “judges have the authority and responsibility to promulgate exceptions to the rule.” When they do, he argues they should “take a pragmatic approach to judicial decision-making to help ameliorate the negative repercussions of the rule.”
“The at-will rule seems equitable,” Kassaii asserted, “but in effect it is not. This becomes apparent in times of economic recession, when employers are at liberty to lay off workers, but employees are not at equal liberty to quit because of the scarcity of jobs,” he said.
The exceptions to the rule address only a few inequities. The "handbook exception” protects workers from arbitrary dismissal when their employers have written policies in place to limit such dismissals. The “professional exception,” protects lawyers who report legal misconduct by their colleagues because, as members of the bar, they have an ethical duty to report.
Other professions are not so protected. In Murphy v. American Home Products Corp., the case of a whistleblower who reported his company’s $50 million accounting fraud and then was dismissed, the employer was found not liable. “The court could have made a ‘public policy’ exception to protect all at-will employees who report the economic improprieties of their employers,” Kassaii wrote. Instead, the opinion stated that modifications to the at-will rule are “best left to resolution in the legislature.”
For its part, the legislature has been consistently “averse to changing the at-will rule,” Kassaii said. The only statutory exception ever enacted protects whistleblowers who report public health or safety violations.
“The court should have the authority to change the at-will rule... It should not cede its authority to the legislature,” Kassaii asserted. “Judges need to act pragmatically, taking into consideration not only legal precedent but current economic and social trends and the negative consequences of their decisions.”
One section of his paper describes pragmatism in theory and as a judicial approach, referencing the scholarship of Professor Gary Minda, for whom Kassaii has worked as a research assistant.
Kassaii’s interest in employment and labor law was kindled in part by being an employer himself. He is the co-founder, CEO and CFO of University Lacrosse LLC (ULAX.org), a nationwide organization for amateur lacrosse players that hosts leagues and tournaments. He was Captain of the men’s lacrosse team at the University of Colorado and launched the organization after graduation, when he discovered there were very few amateur leagues to join. Kassaii devotes several hours a week to the business and to playing goalie for his team in the organization’s New York City league.