CACI 2400 Breach of Employment Contract—Unspecified Term—At-Will Presumption

California Civil Jury Instructions CACI

2400 Breach of Employment Contract—Unspecified Term—“At-Will” Presumption

An employment relationship may be ended by either the employer or the employee, at any time, for any [lawful] reason, or for no reason at all. This is called “at-will employment.”

An employment relationship is not “at will” if the employee proves that the parties, by words or conduct, agreed that [specify the nature of the alleged agreement, e.g., the employee would be discharged only for good cause].

Directions for Use

If the plaintiff has made no claim other than the contract claim, then the word “lawful” may be omitted. If the plaintiff has made a claim for wrongful termination or violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act, then the word “lawful” should be included in order to avoid confusing the jury.

Sources and Authority

At-Will Employment. Labor Code section 2922.

Contract of Employment. Labor Code section 2750.

“Labor Code section 2922 has been recognized as creating a presumption. The statute creates a presumption of at-will employment which may be overcome ‘by evidence that despite the absence of a specified term, the parties agreed that the employer’s power to terminate would be limited in some way, e.g., by a requirement that termination be based only on “good cause.” ’ ” (Haycock v. Hughes Aircraft Co. (1994) 22 Cal.App.4th 1473, 1488 [28 Cal.Rptr.2d 248], internal citations omitted.)

“Where there is no express agreement, the issue is whether other evidence of the parties’ conduct has a ‘tendency in reason’ to demonstrate the existence of an actual mutual understanding on particular terms and conditions of employment. If such evidence logically permits conflicting inferences, a question of fact is presented. But where the undisputed facts negate the existence or the breach of the contract claimed, summary judgment is proper.” (Guz v. Bechtel National, Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 317, 337 [100 Cal.Rptr.2d 352, 8 P.3d 1089], internal citations omitted.)

“Because the presumption of at-will employment is premised upon public policy considerations, it is one affecting the burden of proof. Therefore, even if no substantial evidence was presented by defendants that plaintiff’s employment was at-will, the presumption of Labor Code section 2922 required the issue to be submitted to the jury.” (Alexander v. Nextel Communications, Inc. (1997) 52 Cal.App.4th 1376, 1381–1382 [61 Cal.Rptr.2d 293], internal citations omitted.)

“The presumption that an employment relationship of indefinite duration is intended to be terminable at will is therefore ‘subject, like any presumption, to contrary evidence. This may take the form of an agreement, express or implied, that … the employment relationship will continue indefinitely, pending the occurrence of some event such as the employer’s dissatisfaction with the employee’s services or the existence of some “cause” for termination.’ ” (Foley v. Interactive Data Corp. (1988) 47 Cal.3d 654, 680 [254 Cal.Rptr. 211, 765 P.2d 373], internal citation omitted.)

Secondary Sources

3 Witkin, Summary of California Law (11th ed. 2017) Agency and Employment, § 244
Chin et al., California Practice Guide: Employment Litigation, Ch.4-A, Employment Presumed At Will, ¶¶ 4:2–4:4 (The Rutter Group)
Chin et al., California Practice Guide: Employment Litigation, Ch.4-B, Agreements Limiting At-Will Termination, ¶ 4:65 (The Rutter Group)
1 Wrongful Employment Termination Practice (Cont.Ed.Bar 2d ed.) Contract Actions, §§ 8.4–8.14
4 Wilcox, California Employment Law, Ch. 60, Liability for Wrongful Termination and Discipline, §§ 60.01–60.02 (Matthew Bender)
21 California Forms of Pleading and Practice, Ch. 249, Employment Law: Termination and Discipline, §§ 249.10, 249.11, 249.13, 249.21, 249.43[1], [8] (Matthew Bender)
10 California Points and Authorities, Ch. 100, Wrongful Termination and Discipline, §§ 100.20–100.23 (Matthew Bender)