A Possible Exception for the At-Will Employee

December 7, 2016
Posted in Employment Law
A Possible Exception for the At-Will Employee

The Pennsylvania Superior Court in a recent case entitled Wakeley v. M.J. Brunner addressed the issue of whether the plaintiff could overcome the presumption of at-will employment, where she specifically acknowledged that her employment was at will.

The facts of the case were that Katie Wakeley resided in Dallas, Texas with her family, and was employed as a project manager for an advertising agency with no intention of leaving the Dallas area. According to Wakeley’s allegations, she was informed during her interview with defendant M.J. Brunner that she would be filling a position held by another individual who was on maternity leave, but was assured that she would be assigned another permanent position when the other individual returned. Brunner executives expressed dissatisfaction with her performance, and Wakeley was discharged just four days before the previous employee returned from maternity leave. Wakeley subsequently commenced an action against Brunner asserting causes of action for breach of implied contract, breach of express contract, and fraudulent inducement. Wakeley alleged that having left a secure job, relocating her family, and taking on a thirty-year mortgage, she was entitled to employment for a reasonable period of time. In its answer, Brunner attached several documents, one of which was a “confirmation” executed by Wakeley immediately prior to actually commencing her employment with Brunner, which specifically stated that Wakeley’s employment was “at-will”.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court confirmed that the document which Wakeley executed just prior to commencing her employment clearly demonstrated that Wakeley was notified of and acknowledged her at-will status. Accordingly, the court held that this specific acknowledgement defeated Wakeley’s assertion that a claim should survive by reason of the additional consideration she provided. However, under the holding in Wakeley, an employee who has provided “additional consideration” for their employment, over and above their normal job responsibilities, may be able to overcome the presumption of an at-will employment status. Of course, where that employee specifically and clearly acknowledges that their employment is at-will, the “additional consideration” likely will not be sufficient to defeat the at-will presumption.

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