Pre-Employment Promises To Employees Are Generally Unenforceable

By harley erbe

Financial Stress

In past posts and on our website we've discussed the limited rights that at-will employees have under Iowa law.  At-will employees can generally be fired at any time for any lawful reason without warning.  Employers can also change at-will employees' terms and conditions of employment for any lawful reason, many times without notice as well.  At-will employees pretty much have no choice but to go along with those changes, or quit.

One common scenario that we encounter, particularly as Des Moines wrongful termination lawyers, are pre-employment promises or representations about continued employment that employers make to employees during the hiring process. The effects of such statements by employers depend upon the language used and the precision of that language.  The more precise the language regarding continued employment, the better it is for the employee.

  The Iowa Supreme Court has considered this question a few times.  On at least one occasion, Barske v. Rockwell International Corp., the court ruled that an employer made valid and enforceable promises of continuing employment.  During the job interviews and at an orientation session, the employees claimed they were told their employment would be for a period of at least three to five years. They were assured that the company had sufficient orders on hand and the orders were secured by substantial down payments.  All of the plaintiffs were laid-off within a year of being hired and successfully sued because the promised minimum of three-years employment never materialized.  Interestingly, the jury ruled for the plaintiffs, and the Iowa Supreme Court upheld that verdict, even though the employees signed a disclaimer that stated that "I also acknowledge that this Application is for employment of indefinite duration that can be terminated with or without cause and notice at any time, either by Rockwell or me, except as otherwise provided by the terms of a collective bargaining agreement applicable to me."

Plaintiffs have not been so lucky since Barske.  In Fry v. Mount, the employee claimed that the employer had promised him "long-term" employment and broke that promise when it fired him after only a few months employment.  The Iowa Supreme Court determined that the promise of long-term employment did not alter the general at-will employment principles summarized above, concluding that "Mount and Whalen did no more than express their expectation that the person hired would enjoy long-term employment.  Their representation was made to 'sell' Fry on their company, not to guide him with professional employment advice."

A similar decision was reached in Thompson v. City of Des Moines.  That employee asserted that "his position would not be terminated except for just cause and pursuant to established disciplinary procedures."  He was later let go as part of a reorganization.  That was counter to the employee's impression that the job would be his as long as he wanted it unless he made some mistake warranting termination.  The Iowa Supreme Court rejected the employee's under its earlier Fry decision: "Just as in Fry, Wilkey was trying to 'sell' Thompson on employment with the City of Des Moines.  They were not negotiating the terms of a binding contract for lifetime employment."

The takeway from these cases is that anything short of the specific promises made in Barske will probably not be enough to alter the standard at-will employment principles.  But each case still needs to be evaluated on its own facts.  Please feel free to contact us if you need the assistance of a Des Moines employment lawyer.

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