Employment is generally a relationship based on an agreement between an employer and an employee. Employment law sets the rules for this type of relationship. It governs how an employer is to treat employees and how to define the relationship itself. For employees, it is certainly a good idea to ask questions, and at times, to consult with a good attorney to better understand the employment relationship, particularly when there is a specific agreement that defines it.
Unfortunately, a fair number of disputes involving employment issues reach the courts. A recent example involved Willwoods Community, a precept of the Roman Catholic Church on Howard Avenue in New Orleans. Willwoods had hired Michael Read as Executive Director in mid 2009. About a year later in 2010, Willwoods determined that there was an issue with Mr. Read’s employment, and decided to terminate the relationship to let go of Mr. Read. Mr. Read felt that such termination was not proper. In his mind, he had agreed to the employment for a defined period, and believed Willwoods violated that agreement.
The law indicates that there are two main types of employment relationships ñ term employment, and at-will employment. The latter is more common; it is also the default when there is no agreement or contract indicating otherwise. It refers to the types of employment where either the employee or the employer can break the relationship at any time and without legally having to provide a reason. While it is usually prudent to indicate the reasons for ending the relationship, the law, the rules, do not require that reasons be stated.
On the other hand, term employment involves a stronger and a more defined agreement, through a contract that is usually written, but that can also be established orally. An important part of such a contract defines the length of the employment ñ it can be, for example, for a given number of weeks, months, or years. In such employment, there must be a good reason for either side to terminate the relationship. Since there is a contract in this employment type, there are generally consequences for ending the relationship without a good reason.
The issue between Mr. Read and Willwoods Community was about the type of relationship between them. Mr. Read sued Willwoods on the grounds that there was an oral contract between him and Willwoods. He argued that that contract defined his employment for a term of five years. He also argued that Willwoods violated that contract when it terminated his employment without giving a reason. Mr. Read was thus asking, in part, for payments equivalent to what his salary would have been for the remaining four years.
The case reached the Louisiana Supreme Court. The Court noted that a contract is formed when two sides have a meeting of the minds. A meeting of the minds can be proven by showing that one side made a specific offer, and the other side accepted that exact offer. The Court also indicated that because the default rule is employment at will, Mr. Read as the plaintiff had the first responsibility to show that there was in fact a contract between him and Willwoods.
Under Louisiana law, for a plaintiff to show that there is a contract for term employment, the plaintiff has to provide, first, testimony of a witness about that contract. The plaintiff himself may serve as that witness. Second, the plaintiff has to provide other corroborating circumstances; this part must come from a source other than the plaintiff.
Mr. Read testified about his interview for the position with Willwoods Community. He stated that the interviewers indicated that the search committee did not want to go through the process of searching a second time in the near future. Mr. Read also presented evidence that he left secure employment with a bank as a vice president to take the position with Willwoods Community, and that this evidence corroborated his claim that he only accepted Willwoods offer for employment on the condition that it would be for a fixed term.
The Court explained that, even with Mr. Read’s testimony, there was no indication that Willwoods, at any point, made an actual offer except for the employment itself. In other words, the offer did not include anything along the lines of, this job is for a term of five years. Thus, the Court decided that Willwoods’ offer to Mr. Read was no more than an offer for at-will employment.
As for the corroborating evidence, the Court concluded it could not consider Mr. Read leaving the bank as corroborating evidence because it was from Mr. Read himself, and not from another source.
In summary, Mr. Read should have asserted or requested clear statements from Willwoods regarding the terms of his employment, or at least clarified Willwoods’ expectations. A meeting of the minds is not necessarily simple to prove; however, it is always reasonable to request clear statements of expectations.