The Connecticut Appellate Court today unofficially released a Per Curium decision that affirms the general principle that a contract for an indefinite term is a contract for at-will employment, even in the apparent absence of express terms. 

In Ward v. Distinctive Directories, Inc., (officially released on October 23, 2007), the Court was asked to review a lower court’s decision finding at an at-will employment existed and that the Plaintiff has failed to present evidence of misrepresentation.

The facts are straightforward:

The plaintiff accepted an offer for employment as a sales representative on a commission basis. The defendant agreed to guarantee that the plaintiff’s income would be at least $4583.33 per month for the first six months of employment. The defendant terminated the plaintiff’s employment after less than three months for nonperformance. The plaintiff construed the employment contract as entitling her to compensation for six months, whether or not her relationship with the defendant had been terminated.

The court notes that because the contract was for an indefinite duration (despite highlighting her compensation for the first six months), she was an at-will employee for the company. (The company produces items such as The Valley Book and West Hartford Book.) The court readily disposes of rest of the Plaintiff’s claims that she had been misled.

It suffices to note that the plaintiff had the opportunity to persuade the trial court that she had been misled and misused. She does not claim that the court made evidentiary rulings that precluded her from proving her case. She does not deny the authority of the court to make determinations of credibility. Because we are not persuaded that any of the court’s findings were clearly erroneous, we cannot sustain the plaintiff’s appellate claims.

The Court, however, reserved its harshest criticism for the Plaintiff’s apparent failure to understand the significance that an at-will employment finding has on her employment claims.

As Judge Bryant noted, the plaintiff’s appeal manifests her failure to grasp the significance of [an earlier] ruling that, as a matter of law, her employment contract with the defendant was terminable at will. Having agreed to such a contract, the plaintiff took the risk that her employment would end earlier than she had anticipated. The defendant did not have to justify its termination of their relationship.

The case is a good reminder for practitioners that although the at-will doctrine may be eroded in some instances, it is far from a toothless doctrine.  Moreover, for HR professionals, the decision is a reminder that an at-will disclaimer on any offer letters is a best practice worth following.