At-Will Means “At Any Time”

By August 5, 2006Articles

In the case of Dore v. Arnold Worldwide, Inc., the California Supreme Court recently held that a letter offering employment, and defining at will employment to mean that the prospective employee could be discharged “at any time” did not create an ambiguity and give rise to an expectation that the employee could only be terminated for cause.  (Although this may seem like a no-brainer, the Court of Appeal came up with a different interpretation, read on.)
 
At issue was a letter offering employment to the plaintiff Brook Dore, which mentioned that the employment with the company is “at will”, and in the next sentence stated “This simply means that Arnold Communications has the right to terminate your employment at any time just as you have the right to terminate your employment with Arnold Communications, Inc. at any time.”  The plaintiff Dore signed the offer letter signifying his acceptance of the employment terms.

When he was terminated from his employment some 28 months later, Dore sued alleging breach of contract and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing.  The trial court granted summary judgment on behalf of the Arnold Communications, and the appellate court reversed, holding that the language “at any time” created an ambiguity, impliedly relinquishing the employer’s right to terminate Dore at will and without cause.

The Supreme Court reversed the appellate court and reinstated the summary judgment, on the ground that the offer letter “plainly states that Dore’s employment. . . was at will,” and “at will when used in an employment contract normally conveys an intent employment may be ended by either party at any time without cause.”

The Court also noted that Arnold Communications’ language in its offer letter merely tracked the language of California Labor Code section 2922, and the Supreme Court’s own language in an earlier case, Guz v. Bechtel National, Inc. 24 Cal.4th 317, 335: “An at-will employment may be ended by either party at any time without cause, for any reason or no reason, and subject to no procedure except the statutory requirement of notice.” It is recommended to include this exact language defining “at-will” employment in any offer letter or employment contract your firm uses.

For any questions or comments regarding this Labor Law Update please contact attorney Michael Daly of the Daly Law Firm at (619) 525-7000 or daly@dalylawfirm.co.

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