In a decision released today, the Connecticut Appellate Court upheld a lower court judgment that found that a local lawfirm breached its employment contract to an associate by failing to pay that associate a bonus.
It’s rare to see lawfirms involved in employment disputes, and even rarer, to have cases proceed all the way to an appeal. Yet, that’s exactly what has happened to the case of Ziotas v. The Reardon Law Firm (download here). It will no doubt be strange to cite as a precedent a case involving other attorneys in the state.
But aside from the novelty of the type of case, the facts of the case are a bit more mundane. (As with all case descriptions, the "facts" are taken from the court decision itself. There is no doubt that the parties believe that there are additional "facts" surrounding this matter too.)
An associate who left the firm contended that he was entitled to a pro-rata bonus payment under the terms of an employment contract he had. The firm refused and argued that it was not required to pay him a bonus under the agreement. The lower court (and now Appellate Court) disagreed with the lawfirm and found that the associate was entitled to the bonus under the agreement.
The Court found that the lawfirm had expressly promised the associate that he was entitled to a bonus. Just because the amount of the bonus was uncertain, the court ruled, does not make the promise of a bonus no less certain. Thus, the court upheld the lower court decision to find that the lawfirm needed to pay the associate a pro-rata bonus.
The court also addressed whether the claim for bonus falls within the state’s wage statutes (and concludes that it did). I’ll address that portion of the claim in an upcoming post because it has implications for other employers as well.
In the meantime, this case reinforces the age-old notion that no matter the type of employer, the terms of employment between the employer and employee should be articulated in a clear and concise fashion. It’s Monday-morning quarterbacking to say that a well-drafted employment agreement in this case could have avoided the dispute present here, but I’m sure the parties each wish they could have avoided nearly a decade’s worth of litigation with such documentation.