Much of what you may think you know about employment contractual issues could be wrong. Is your company exposing itself to liability because of misinformation or a lack of information about contracts? Employment law creates traps for unwary employers. For example, you could be damned by a poorly drafted commission plan, which could subject you to triple damages, costs and attorneys’ fees even where you think an employee is owed nothing. You could be damned by your own personnel manual, which inadvertently creates contractual rights in employees. You could be damned by firing a minority owner of your business (stockholder, partner or LLC Member) without legal advice. Here is a brief guide, which just scratches the surface of these complex issues.
Does a Contract Have to Be in Writing?
Yes and no. Ideally, every employment agreement should be in writing to clarify the rights and obligations of both parties. Sometimes, a simple offer letter will do. To some extent, oral contracts can be enforceable if they can be performed within one year. If the contract cannot be performed within one year, then it must be in writing to satisfy the statute of frauds. Like many things in the law, there are exceptions to these rules. For example, if an employee relied on an oral promise of a contract for a term of years, the employee might be able to enforce the oral promise using the court’s equitable powers? Also, a promise of employment for life can be performed within one year because anyone can die within a year. Thus, an oral promise of employment for life can be enforceable.
Does a Partner in a Partnership, a Shareholder in a Small Corporation, or a Member of an LLC Have Rights Against Being Terminated by the Majority Owners?
Yes, to an extent. This is a very complicated area of the law and depends on the specific facts of each case. In general, if the owner-employee has a reasonable expectation of continued employment, he cannot be fired unless there is a business purpose for the firing and no less harmful alternative. This is because the majority owners owe the minority owner the utmost duty of good faith and fair dealing. Thus, majority owners should seek sound legal advice before terminating or taking other action against a minority owner employee.
Can Other Employees Be Fired Without Cause?
The general rule is that, if an employee is “at-will,” which means that the employment is not for a specified period of time and there is no contractual protection to employment, the employer can fire the employee for any reason or for no reason. If an employee has a specific contract (or if a personnel policy creates rights against termination, as set forth below), usually the employer can terminate the employee only if there is “cause” to do so. Well-drafted contracts define the specific “for cause” reasons for termination.
Also, there are dozens of statutory and common law protections which protect employees from discrimination and other matters. Thus, if the employer terminates the employee without cause, the employee may believe that there is a discriminatory or other reason for the termination.
Does the Employee Manual or Personnel Manual Create an Employment Contract Giving Rights to the Employee?
Yes, no, maybe. Typical lawyer answer, I know, but it is the right answer. A well drafted manual usually will not create contractual rights in favor of employees. However, there are reported cases where a poorly drafted manual inadvertently gives rights to employees that prevent their termination without cause. Employers should have their manual reviewed by a qualified employment lawyer to protect themselves from suit.
Can an Offer Letter Create an Employment Contract for a Term?
Yes. Employers can unintentionally create an implied contract for a term by the wording in an offer letter. Employers should have their offer letters reviewed by a qualified employment attorney before sending them.
Should Employees Be Told of the Reason for Termination?
Probably, but it depends on the situation. What employers should not do is lie or tell a half-truth, even to save the employee’s feelings. This does not mean that the employer has to be harsh or intentionally hurt an employee’s feelings, but if you do not tell the truth at termination and you are then sued, it’s hard to change your story later. The employee’s lawyer will accuse you of changing your story and that your real reasons were discriminatory. Also, you should document the reason for the firing. Employment lawyers have a saying – if it is not in writing, it didn’t happen.
Additionally, there are new statutory requirements about what employers must put in an employee’s personnel file and how the employer must inform the employee of any negative information. All employers should review these new requirements with a competent employment attorney.
Can an Employment Contract Control over Statutes and Common Law?
Generally, no. Although parties are free to set forth the terms of the employment in writing, there are limitations. For example, employees must be paid minimum wages and must be paid either weekly or bi-weekly. These rights cannot be contracted away. An employer also could not have an employee waive an employee’s rights under anti-discrimination or other protective statutes, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act. However, unless there is some statutory or public policy prohibition, parties are free to tailor their agreement as they see fit.
Are Contracts Requiring Arbitration Enforceable?
To some extent, yes, if the contract is well-drafted, fair and reasonable. An employee is always allowed to challenge whether there is a valid arbitration provision, which is an issue for a court, not an arbitrator. Arbitration can also be waived by the party seeking to enforce it. Also, arbitration clauses cannot prohibit employees from filing with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, or from filing wage claims or other claims with the Attorney General or other governmental entities. Arbitration issues are complex, so if you are an employer who seeks to enforce an arbitration clause, make sure you have it reviewed by a competent employment attorney.
Can an Employer Make Sure that a Worker Is Not Classified as an Employee by Entering Into an Independent Contractor Agreement?
No. In Massachusetts, there is a strict three-part test for determining whether someone providing services for your company is an employee or independent contractor. This is a complex legal and factual question, but in general, if the individual is providing services within your line of business, or you have some control over the individual’s work, or if the employee does not have his own business or profession, the individual will likely be deemed to be an employee. There can be severe penalties and liabilities for misclassifying a worker as an independent contractor, so have a competent employment lawyer review this issue for you.
Does an Employee Have any Rights and Remedies if a Contract Has Been Breached?
Usually, but it depends on the wording of the contract and whether the employee has suffered damages. Employees will normally have a duty to mitigate damages. Thus, an employee must seek another comparable job after termination. The normal damages would be the loss of earnings during the contract term, minus amounts earned or which could have been earned in mitigation. There could be other damages, depending on the wording of the contract and the situation.
Does an Employer Have to Provide Severance Pay?
Generally, no, unless there is a contractual right or a specific, enforceable policy to do so. There may be exceptions to this general rule, but the exceptions do not apply to most employers and employees.
Does an Employee Have a Contractual Right to Bonuses and Commissions?
Yes, no, maybe. Commissions and bonuses are creatures of contract, but can potentially be enforced through payment of wages statutes. One must first look at the specific wording of any written contract or compensation plan, and also examine the course of dealing of the parties and the standards in the industry. If an employer has a vague commission plan or one that favors the employee, the employee may have a contractual right to commissions, even after termination. Worse yet, the employee could be entitled to triple damages and attorney’s fees, litigation costs and interest. Thus, any commission or bonus plan must be very carefully crafted by a competent employment attorney. A “bonus” is usually thought of as being wholly discretionary and, thus, not subject to contractual or statutory rights. However, “bonus,” is just a word used and the word itself does not control. Employers can inadvertently create employee rights to a “bonus” by a poorly worded compensation plan or a course of dealing.
Can an Employer Make any Employee a Salaried Employ by Putting that in the Contract?
No. There are specific guidelines under federal and state law regarding who is an “exempt employee” and who is a “non-exempt employee” for overtime purposes. Contrary to the belief of some employers, you cannot simply pay any employee a salary and not expect to keep track of their hours and pay overtime. You must first determine whether the employee meets the exempt guidelines, which can be very complicated. For example, lawyers and doctors are professionals and can be paid on a salaried basis, as can some (but not all) executives, managers and computer programmers.
The above is not meant to be legal advice, but merely general information. Employment law is extremely complex, and legal advice cannot be given without a full review of the facts and the law. The above may or may not apply to any particular employer or employee.
By Adam P. Whitney 617.338.7000.