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In employment contracts, use clear, unambiguous terms

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

When Florida courts interpret employment contracts, they look first and foremost to the contract language. If it’s clear and unambiguous, they enforce the terms strictly.

But if the court questions the meaning of some terms, it will interpret them in a way that benefits the employee, not the employer that dictated the terms in the first place.

That’s why it’s vital to review any contract before signing it to make sure it’s crystal clear. Ask the employee if he or she has any questions. Document the fact if he or she has no questions.

Recent case: Lee Frank was a tenured University of Miami professor. The faculty contract provided for a base salary, but allowed the university to pay a professor more after a positive review in any given year.

When Frank received a poor review, the university lowered his salary that year. Frank sued, arguing that because the contract provided higher salaries for good reviews, the university could never reduce a salary.

Not so, said the Florida District Court of Appeals. The contract language was clear and unambiguous. The fact that the university could raise salaries after a good year didn’t mean it couldn’t reduce salaries after a poor year.

Frank’s interpretation would mean that a professor who earned a higher salary after winning the Nobel Prize, for example, always would receive that salary even if his performance later plummeted. (University of Miami v. Frank, No. 3D04-477, Florida District Court of Appeals, 3rd District, 2006)  

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