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Is an oral promise enough to take employment out of the at-will statute?

Unless specifically provided otherwise, employment contracts are at-will, meaning that they can be ended for practically any or no reason.

In New Jersey, as throughout the United States, employees, unless provided otherwise, are employed at will, meaning that employees can be fired for any or no reason not barred by law or public policy. Generally, the at-will status may be altered by a bilateral contract, such as a union or employment agreement, or by a bilateral contract, such as an employee handbook or an explicit policy published by the employer.

McCrone v. Acme Markets

The recent Third Circuit of Appeals decision of McCrone v. Acme Markets reviewed the New Jersey law on employment contracts when several employees were terminated after their employer discovered that they improperly falsified and/or conducted a consumer satisfaction survey. The employees brought suit for wrongful termination alleging that they were not at-will employees, alleging that the employer created a reasonable expectation of employment by making statements that, as long as they “did their jobs” and remained trouble-free, they would retain their jobs. Also, the employees alleged that their employment manual did not state that their employment was “at-will.” Thus, the employees asserted that were not at-will employees and could not be summarily fired.

Presumption of at-will employment

The Third Circuit, in reviewing New Jersey law, stated that all employment contracts in New Jersey are presumed to be at-will. Accordingly, the employee may be terminated for “good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all.” The relationship may be terminated by either the employer or the employee unless an agreement otherwise provides. As recognized today, employment is at-will, unless stated explicitly by contract.

Effect of employment manual or oral policy

Under New Jersey law, an employment manual may unilaterally change the terms of the employment contract, including oral communications of a company-wide policy. Despite the Acme Market’s employees’ allegations of an oral policy and practice to listen to employees and treat them fairly, the Third Circuit decided that the employees did not prove their case sufficiently to move their statements from the category of mere allegations.

If you suspect that your employment may be terminated, you should find an attorney who specializes in employment law to see what your options may be before you receive that pink slip. If you have already been terminated, seek representation as soon as possible in order to see if there are any steps that you may take for your own protection.

Keywords: wrongful termination, employment

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