In Texas, employment is presumed to be at-will. This means that, absent a specific agreement to the contrary, employment may be terminated by the employer or the employee for any reason at any time. An employer may modify at-will employment but only if it does so expressly and unequivocally.
A Houston Court of Appeals in Queen et al. v. RBG USA recently reaffirmed this long-standing Texas doctrine, stating that the burden is on the employee to “prove that the employer expressly, clearly, and specifically agreed to modify the employee’s at-will employment status.”
Employees will often attempt to bring a wrongful termination claim because they relied on an employer’s promise to keep them employed for a certain period of time or because they understood or believed that they would not be terminated without good cause. However, because of the at-will doctrine, such claims often fail where an employer’s promises are found to be too ambiguous, implied instead of express, or simply unclear.
For example, oral assurances that an employee whose work is satisfactory will not be terminated without good cause have been previously found to be too indefinite to constitute oral employment agreement. Similarly, general statements about working conditions, disciplinary procedures, or termination rights are not sufficient to change the at-will employment relationship; rather, the employer must expressly, clearly, and specifically agree to modify the employee’s at-will status.
Takeway for Employers: If you intend to have an at-will employment relationship with an employee, i.e., be able to fire him or her at any time for any legal reason, you should include “at-will” language in employment agreements. This will help ward off any arguments by employees that they were promised a definite-term employment. Consult with an employment attorney to make sure that you structure your employment relationships correctly under the Texas law and that your on-boarding documents consistently reflect that structure.
Takeway for Employees: If your employment agreement states that your employment is at-will, oral assurances from the employer regarding the length or conditions of employment might not be sufficient to modify the written employment relationship. Consult with an employment attorney when in doubt about your employment status.
Leiza Dolghih frequently litigates employment disputes, advises employers on how to handle troublesome employees, and assists with responding to EEOC charges and investigations. For additional information, contact Leiza at Leiza.Dolghih@lewisbrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.