Most employers are well aware of the distinction between so-called “at-will” employment and employment pursuant to a contract for a defined period of time and/or requiring just cause for termination. Although caveats abound (leading some employers to seek legal guidance prior to terminating any employee), in general, at-will employment can be terminated by either the employee or the employer at any time, for any non-discriminatory reason (or for no reason at all), with our without prior notice. For many reasons, employers typically are quite diligent about not unwittingly converting the status of their at-will employees; however, careful attention to the drafting of employment documents is necessary to avoid such potential consequences.
In Cruz v. Visual Perceptions, LLC, the Connecticut Supreme Court was faced with determining whether an agreement between an employer and employee constituted a contract for a defined period of time. The plaintiff, Norma Cruz had been employed by Visual Perceptions as a laboratory manager. As is required by statute, at the time of her hire, Cruz was provided with a letter setting forth her rate of compensation, work schedule, and benefits. Later during her employment, Cruz and her employer entered into a second and then third letter agreement, the latter of which contained a provision indicating that the agreement covered a thirty-six month period. Despite that provision, prior to the expiration of thirty-six months, Cruz’s employment was terminated. Cruz brought a lawsuit claiming, among other things, that the letter constituted an employment contract requiring that she not be fired during the fixed period without a showing of just cause. Cruz asserted that the employer’s termination of her employment breached the contact.
Both the Trial and Appellate Courts agreed with Cruz. The Connecticut Supreme Court, however, reached a different result. In a 6 to 1 decision, the Court concluded that the intention of Cruz and her employer, as expressed in the letter agreement, was ambiguous. In so doing, it found that the phrase: “[t]his will cover the [thirty-six] month period” (as used in the letter), “reasonably may be interpreted as evincing either an intent to create a definite term of employment or an intent to set the terms and conditions of an at-will employment contract.” Accordingly, the Supreme Court remanded the case for a new trial to consider the impact of certain evidence on the issue of what the parties actually intended by the terms of the agreement, which evidence the trial court declined to consider during the initial trial.
Although in this instance the Connecticut Supreme Court gave the employer a reprieve, the takeaway from this case is clear: at-will employers need to be very careful about preparing any employment document that, through poor drafting, inadvertence or otherwise, leaves it open to a claim that an employee’s at-will status has been altered. While the result in this case amounted to an interim victory for the employer, the cost incurred to achieve that result likely was considerable – with the prospect of additional costs for a new trial and a potential $60,000-plus award to the plaintiff yet to be addressed.
For assistance in preparing and/or reviewing employment documents, feel free to contact the EMPLOYMENT PRACTICES GROUP.
 Connecticut General Statutes § 31-71f requires that employers advise employees in writing, at the time of hire, the terms of their compensation, hours to be worked and wage payment schedules. The same statute requires that employers make available to employees written notice of its practices and procedures relative to wages, vacation pay, sick leave, health and welfare benefits and comparable matters.