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, unless the employee proves that the parties, by words or conduct, agreed that the employee would be discharged only for good cause. This relationship is called "at-will employment."

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.

Give this instruction only if the term of employment is unspecified.

Sources and Authority

Labor Code section 2922 provides, in pertinent part: "An employment, having no specified term, may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other."

"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.)

Labor Code section 2750 provides: "The contract of employment is a contract by which one, who is called the employer, engages another, who is called the employee, to do something for the benefit of the employer or a third person."

"Where there is no express agreement, the issue is whether other evidence of the parties' conduct has a 'tendency in reason' to emonstrate 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

2 Witkin, Summary of California Law (9th ed. 1987) Agency and Employment, §§ 165-166

4 Wilcox, California Employment Law, Ch. 60, Liability for Wrongful Termination and Discipline, § 60.02 (Matthew Bender)

1 Wrongful Employment Termination Practice (Cont.Ed.Bar 2d ed. 1997) Contract Actions, § 8.13

21 California Forms of Pleading and Practice, Ch. 249, Employment Law: Termination and Discipline, §§ 249.10-11. 249.13, 249.21, 249.43 (Matthew Bender)

10 California Points and Authorities, Ch. 100, Wrongful Termination and Discipline, Forms 1, 2, 5-6 (Matthew Bender)

(New September 2003)