CACI No. 2400. Breach of Employment Contract - Unspecified Term - “At-Will” Presumption

Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (2023 edition)

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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
New September 2003; Revised June 2006, November 2018
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
employers 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 employers 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)

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