A recent case from the Houston Court of Appeals demonstrates how failing to document the exact terms of a sales commission arrangement can result in a loss of such commission for an employee and a costly legal dispute for an employer.
In Colter v. Amkin Technologies, the company hired Colter as a sales director to sell portable drilling rigs. His offer letter stated that he would get $4,000 a month salary and a commission, the structure of which would be determined at a later time. The parties never drafted or executed a written agreement detailing the terms of the commission structure.
After Amkin terminated Colter’s employment citing his lack of productivity, Colter sued the company for breach of contract claiming that after he was hired, Amkin’s president orally agreed to pay Colter 3% commission on each sale he made. Not surprisingly, the president denied making such a promise and testified that based on the commission arrangements made with other sales directors, he would have never offered Colter a guaranteed 3% commission. Furthermore, the history of commission payments to Colter showed that he got 3% on some sales, but less than 3% or nothing on others.
At trial, the jury was presented with employer’s president’s testimony, employee’s testimony, and documents showing that the employee did not consistently receive 3% commission on each sale he made at Amkin. Based on this evidence, and lack of a written agreement, the jury found that Amkin never agreed to pay Colter 3% commission on each sale.
Colter appealed, claiming that the jury got it wrong and that their finding was not supported by the evidence, but the Court of Appeals affirmed the original judgment stating that the jury was fully within its rights to find Amkin’s president’s testimony more credible than Colter’s testimony that the parties had an oral agreement regarding the commission structure.
TAKEAWAY FOR EMPLOYEES: When entering into an employment agreement, make sure that all parts of your compensation are clearly spelled out in the agreement. Otherwise, you might end up in a situation where it’s your word against the word of your employer, and a jury of your peers will be deciding on who they believe more. Furthermore, if you believe that you have an agreement, insist on employer complying with its terms. Failure to insist that the employer pays you what you believe you are owed, can result in a waiver of your rights and significantly hurt your case down the road if you decide to take it to court.
TAKEAWAY FOR EMPLOYERS: Employers also have a direct interest in writing down the precise terms of the compensation. If Amkin here had a written agreement that stated that Colter’s commission was discretionary, Amkin could have probably avoided the lawsuit. While it might be tempting to rely on an oral agreement when a working relationship is new and going well, remember that when things go sour between an employer and an employee, their memory of what the terms of the oral agreement are, may diverge significantly.
Leiza Dolghih is the founder of Dolghih Law Group PLLC. She is board certified in labor and employment law and has 16+ years of experience in commercial and employment litigation, including trade secrets and non-compete disputes. You can contact her directly at email@example.com or (214) 531-2403.