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Contracts should spell out at-will employment

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

It’s unusual, but sometimes a written offer of employment for a specific time period can overcome the usual presumption of at-will employment. Note, however, that other documents may stipulate that employment is at-will—and they will stand up in court.

Recent case: When Jane was recruited to join a medical practice, the parties discussed how employees became partners. They generally talked about a three-year trial period, after which the partners would decide whether Jane would become a partner.

Jane accepted a written job offer that included a three-year salary schedule. At orientation, she was required to read and acknowledge receipt of the practice handbook, which included an at-will employment provision.

When Jane was terminated before three years were up, she sued, alleging she could only be fired for cause because she had worked under a specific three-year employment contract.

The court tossed Jane’s case, concluding while the written agreement didn’t specify what type of employment contract it was, the contract was supplemented by the handbook, which did stipulate at-will employment. (Zhou v. Ruess, et al., No. C073405, Court of Appeal of California, 2016)

Advice: Include a specific at-will employment provision in your written employment contracts.

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