When can wrongful termination occur under an employment contract?

This blog has previously discussed the at-will employment doctrine in Oklahoma, and what that sometimes means for suits involving wrongful termination. To review, the at-will doctrine presumes that, absent evidence to the contrary, employers and employees intend for any employment to be for an indefinite length of time, and that either party can terminate the relationship for any or no reason (with the exception of reasons that are considered illegal discrimination under state or federal law.) But what if there is evidence that the parties contracted for employment to last a certain length of time, or that discharge be allowed only under certain conditions? Then cases get into the complex area of employment contract law.

According to the American Bar Association, there are a few steps needed to assess cases involving potential employment contracts. These include whether a contract was formed at all and, if so, what its terms happen to be, whether the parties had a duty to perform under the contract and if there are any defenses to its enforcement, whether a breach occurred and what remedies are appropriate if a breach did, in fact, happen. It is important to note that the ABA is a national association of lawyers and state laws will vary on this and other topics.

Sometimes these questions can be answered comparatively easily. For example, if there is a written document that claims to be a contract for employment that is signed by both parties, there is a very good chance a contract may have been formed. However, there are sometimes cases when an employer's promise is less formalized, for instance if a promise was made during an interview, or is contained in an employee handbook. Sometimes, in these cases, it could be argued that a contract has been formed even in the absence of a formal document.

While it is beyond the scope of this entry to get into all the potential specifics required to prosecute a wrongful termination case for breach of contract, suffice to say it can get fairly complicated. Because most employment in Oklahoma is considered at-will, such issues may or may not pertain to any individual's situation. If you have questions, as either an employer or an employee, about whether a contract has been formed in your case, you may wish to consider consulting an experienced Oklahoma employment lawyer.