Thursday, March 29, 2007

Even Written Employment Contracts Can be At Will

Maryland is an "at will employment" state. With limited exception, an employer or an employee can terminate the relationship without notice for any reason. One familiar exception is that an employer cannot terminate an employee because of his or her protected status, i.e., because of his or her race, color, religion, gender, age, disability status, etc. Another familiar exception is if the parties have entered into a written agreement altering the at will relationship. The parties usually do this by agreeing in writing to an employment term (i.e., a year) and limiting the employer right to terminate to very specific reasons (often referred to in shorthand as limiting the right to terminate only "for cause").

But, what if the employees and the employer enter a written agreement without specifying an employment term. United States District Judge Blake ruled in this case that the absence of a term means that the relationship is "at will." How does this affect you? If you are an employee and are going through the trouble of negotiating an employment agreement make sure it has a term (and make sure you have an employment attorney review that agreement).

Two sidenotes:

  • I wrote here that under Maryland law a written at will employment agreement can contain a arbitration provision (waiving the employee's right to a jury trial).

  • Under Maryland law a written at will employment agreement can contain a non-compete provision (limiting the employee's ability to earn a living after the relationship ends).

Two more reasons to get expert advice when asked to sign an employment agreement.

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