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Legal Doctrine May Apply if Employer Breaks Promises


Q: I had an interview with a potential employer in Ohio, who promised me that I would have a particular job if I moved to Ohio. We didn’t have a written contract, but I relied on that promise, left my old job and moved to Ohio, only to be terminated my first day for no reason at all. Can the company do this?
A:
 Generally, yes. In nearly every state in the United States, there is an “employment at will” doctrine that says either you or your employer may end your employment relationship at any time for any reason that does not contradict the law, unless you and your employer have made some sort of agreement. Because you did not sign a contract with the potential employer, the “employment at will” doctrine generally allows the employer to terminate you at any time, even on your first day. 

Q: The employer told me I’d be hired for a “trial” period of six months if I would move. Does this make a difference?
A:
 It might. There are some exceptions to “employment at will,” and one of them, called promissory estoppel, may cover a situation like yours.

Q: What, exactly, is promissory estoppel?
A:
 Promissory estoppel is a legal doctrine rooted in a court’s inherent power to correct an unjust action. In an employment-at-will case, the unjust action is usually a promise made by an employer that is not binding, like a contract would be, but is nonetheless one on which an employee can reasonably rely. If the employee relies on it and suffers a job loss as a result, a court may enforce it.  Thus, the promissory estoppel exception to employment-at-will agreements occur when:

• the employer makes a promise on which it should reasonably expect the employee to rely;
• the employee in fact relies on the promise; and
• injustice can be avoided only by enforcement of the promise.
 
The test in these cases is whether the employer should have reasonably expected the employee to rely on its promise and, if so, whether the employee acted on the promise, to his or her detriment. 

Q: Can you give an example of an actual case that involved a promissory estoppel exception?
A:
 Mers v. Dispatch Printing Company is the leading case on at-will employment agreements in Ohio. William Mers had worked as a traveling representative of the Dispatch Printing Company for nearly four years when he was arrested for rape, kidnapping, and gross sexual imposition. The Dispatch suspended him from his job on April 29 without pay because of the accusations, until such time as the criminal charges would be “favorably resolved.” The charges against Mers were eventually dismissed.

Although the prosecutor dismissed the case against Mers, the Dispatch nonetheless notified Mr. Mers that it would not reinstate him and terminated his employment. Mers sued, claiming he reasonably relied on the promise to reinstate him if the criminal charges were favorably resolved.

Because Mers showed he relied on these promises by not looking for other work during the criminal proceedings, the Supreme Court of Ohio allowed him to pursue a promissory estoppel case.

Q: Can I reasonably rely on the promise of a six-month trial period?
A:
 Generally, a court should enforce the promise of six months of employment if you can prove that:

• the employer promised the six-month trial as a minimum employment period;
• the employer intended for you to rely on at least six months of employment as a basis for accepting the job; and
• you did, in fact, rely on that promise. 

Be aware of two things, though. First, if the employer's promise was not definite (for instance, if the employer says, "You will have a six-month trial period as long as everything is working out"), a court is unlikely to rule that you could reasonably rely on it. And second, even if the court rules in your favor on the six-month trial period, after six months, you will probably be treated as an employee at will again.

1/3/2013

This "Law You Can Use consumer legal information column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was originally prepared by Akron attorney Neil E. Klingshirn of Fortney & Klingshirn, and updated by Columbus attorney Jeffrey P. Vardaro of The Gittes Law Group. 

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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