"You’re hired. No wait, you’re fired."

That’s essentially what happened in the case of Petitte v. DSL.net, a decision recently handed down by the Connecticut Appellate Court.  The Appeals Court rejected Mr. Petitte’s claims that the company should be estopped from firing him.

The background is fairly straight-forward:

  • Mr. Petitte applied for a position as regional sales manager. The Company offered him a position, including an offer letter, after which he resigned from his then-current job. 
  • Upon his first day of work, however, his supervisor told him to go home. 
  • Later that day, the Company informed him that it had changed it mind about hiring him, as a result of information they received while checking his references.
  • Shortly after that, Mr. Petitte filed suit alleging breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation and infliction of emotional distress.
  • DSL.net argued that because Mr. Petitte was an at-will employee, it could terminate him at any time for any reason — even if it occurred before his start date.
  • The trial court concluded that DSL.net was correct and dismissed Petitte’s claims.

On appeal, Mr. Petitte made the novel argument that because he never started work, he never became an employee.  Thus, he argued the employment-at- will doctrine didn’t apply. This was an issue of first impression to the Connecticut Appellate Court.

The Appellate Court held that logic dictates that there is no distinction between the offer of employment and the actual act of employment when the employment relationship is at will. Because of this, the employment-at-will doctrine applies to the entire employment situation, including offers of at-will employment. The court noted that prospective employees should now be on notice of the risks they face when resigning from an existing job to accept employment elsewhere.

For employers in Connecticut, it’s a common sense decision.  But this case shows that even if you are in the "right" at the end, it may be a costly fight to fight.  In addition, offer letters should always note that the offers are contingent upon background checks.  This will ensure that employers have an additional argument if, in the unlikely event, the offer has to be withdrawn.