In Florida, the simple creation of a valid employment contract of a definite duration gives employees rights associated with the common law doctrine of wrongful discharge. In the absence of a contract, however, an employee is subject to the common law doctrine of at-will employment. At-will employment gives complete control of the terms and conditions of employment to the employer, who can dictate all of the terms and conditions of the job, including termination. The only right an employee has under at-will employment is the right to quit.
An employment contract, on the other hand, gives an employee common law rights of protection from employer abuses and indiscretions. In most cases, and employment contract gives and employee limited property rights to the duration and circumstances of employment, including wages, salary, commissions, and other forms of compensation. However, problems arise with employment contracts due to the fact that they are most often drafted by the employer. When provisions in the contract are strictly construed under Florida law, they quickly reveal that the apparent rights granted to the employee, were actually no rights at all. Understanding the judicial methods for interpreting employment contracts helps an employee protect their rights by assuring that the contract is valid with remedies for the employee in the event it breach.
Without an employment contract, there are only limited remedies available which were created as a result of public policy concerns for protecting due process rights of employees and discouraged egregious conduct by employers. Some of those rights provide causes of action for violation of laws concerning discrimination based on sex, race, age, religion, and disabilities. Others include to the right to be free from wrongful termination, retaliatory discharge from employment for bringing a workers compensation claim, or reporting an employers violation of state or federal law. There are other guarantees for payment of wages in compliance with federal wage and hour laws, including unpaid overtime.
Valid express or implied employment contracts can provide for guarantees of employment duration, compensation, specified circumstances of cause for termination, geographical and periodical limitations on post employment competition. However, as stated above, employment contracts are narrowly construed by court in order to limit employer’s liability in each instance wherein it terminates a person’s employment. If employees were given any broader right to employment by the legislature or the courts, employers would be put out of the business by the lawsuits that would be brought each and every time it terminated an employee. In order to discourage lawsuits, employment contracts often include provision for payment of attorneys fees and costs to the prevailing party in an employment contract dispute.
Therefore, the advice of competent counsel prior to entering into an employment contract is essential. Likewise, it is also very important to weigh the risks and potential gains of bringing a lawsuit for breach of an employment contract.