Authored by Neil S. Lowenstein
In a recent opinion involving a fired realtor, the Virginia Supreme Court confirmed that at-will employees can be fired on the spot, without any prior notice to the employee. The decision was unanimous, and noted that while the firing notice “must be reasonable,” advance notice was not required because, among other things, that would be contrary to the flexibility at the heart of the at-will employment doctrine and undermine the indefinite duration which is implicitly an element of at-will employment.
In Virginia, unless the employer and employee agree otherwise, employment is “at will,” meaning that either the employer or employee may end the employment relationship at any time and for any (legal) reason, upon “reasonable notice.” The plaintiff in Johnston v. William E. Wood & Associates, Inc. argued that “reasonable notice” meant advanced notice. The Virginia Supreme Court shot down that argument, holding that to be “reasonable,” notice of the termination need only be effective notice. In other words, the employer only has to make clear to the employee that the employment relationship has ended, so that the employee knows to stop work. Advance notice of the termination is not required unless the employer has promised to give advance notice or the federal WARN Act, which addresses mass layoffs and plant closings, applies.
The court’s decision was not a change in the law, but blocked a determined effort by plaintiffs’ attorneys to chip away at the at-will employment doctrine, which is already circumscribed by other laws limiting the reasons for employment termination. As before, employers need to be mindful that their employee policies, handbooks, offer letters, and other communications with their employees—both written and oral—do not promise or imply that the employment relationship will last for a particular period, or that the employee will only be fired for cause or after advanced notice. Employers should consult with an employment attorney about whether to require employees give advance notice of resignation. The best practice is to emphasize that the employment is at-will and can end at any time and for any reason.
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