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What Is "Employment-At-Will"?


In every state but Montana, employers may follow "at-will" employment policies. West Virginia observes this doctrine of "employment at-will," which means that employment may be terminated at any time, with or without cause, at the will of either party. Williamson v. Sharvest Management Company, 415 S.E.2d 271 (W.Va. 1992). "Employment at-will" allows an employer to terminate an employee for good reason, bad reason, or no reason whatsoever, provided that this reason is not illegal under state or federal law. Williams v. Precision Coil, Inc., 459 S.E.2d 329, 340 (W.Va. 1995).

West Virginia law generally makes the presumption that employees are employed "at will" unless there is evidence that proves otherwise, like some statement that unequivocally sets forth that an employee may only be terminated for certain reasons. This evidence may be in the form of written documents relating to employment like an employment contract or collective bargaining agreement. In some circumstances, it may even be presented in the form of non-written employer statements.

Like most legal doctrines, the employment-at-will doctrine is subject to some exceptions in West Virginia. Not only do West Virginia courts make the presumption that "every employee relationship is terminable at will," but they have further stated that "any promises alleged to alter that presumptive relationship must be very definite to be enforceable." Suter v. Harsco Corp., 403 S.E.2d 751, 754 (W.Va. 1991). Moreover, this burden is on an employee to prove that the employment relationship is not terminable at will. Id at 754.

Many employment relationships are governed by written employment agreements. These contracts regulate the employer-employee relationship and may be in the form of a collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") if the employer's business is unionized. In the latter case, the terms and conditions of employment are governed by the CBA, which often specifically lists and describes those exclusive reasons for which employees may be terminated.

The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia has also recognized that under certain circumstances, employment agreements may be implied even if no written contract exists between the two parties. In this circumstance, the evidence must demonstrate an implied contractual relationship, such as an employee handbook that contains an employer promise to terminate an employee only for specific reasons. Cook v. Heck's Inc., 342 S.E.2d 453 (W.Va. 1986). Also, past employer customs and practices not described in writing in any contract or handbook may in some limited situations form an implied contract.

However, where the employee handbook contains a clear and conspicuous statement that employment is "at-will," or where the employee acknowledges in a job application or upon receipt of his or her employee handbook that employment is "at-will," West Virginia courts will not consider this as sufficient evidence of an implied employment contract. Suter v. Harsco Corp., 403 S.E.2d 751 (W.Va. 1991). Of course, both of these procedures are what many businesses utilize in West Virginia to ensure that the employment relationship is characterized as "at will."

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has recognized that employers may be liable for terminating a worker that is employed at-will. In Harless v. First National Bank of Fairmont, 246 S.E.2d 270 (W.Va. 1978), the court created a new cause of action for discharged at-will employees, which arises when an employer's motive for discharge contravenes a substantial public policy. Further, it stated that the general rule of employee termination for almost any reason should be alleviated when the reason for that termination contravenes a substantial public policy.

If you live in and around Huntington, or anywhere in West Virginia, and have been terminated from your employment and you believe that such termination was illegal under federal or state law, please call Amy Crossan, an expert in employment law, for a consultation at 304.523.8451.

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