Common Law Doctrine of Employment At-Will

By Timothy P. Piatt, Esq. and
Thomas J. Griffith, Esq.
Macala & Piatt, LLC
North Canton, OH

Ohio has long recognized the employment-at-will doctrine, which generall governs most employment relationships in Ohio. The at-will relationship has been described by the Ohio Supreme Court as follows: "[T]he employee agrees to perform work under the direction and control of the employer, and the employer agrees to pay the employee at an agreed rate. Moreover, either an employer or an employee in a pure at-will employment relationship may legally terminate the employment relationship at any time and for any reason." See Mers v. Dispatch Printing Co., 19 Ohio St. 3d. 100 (1985). As a result, unless otherwise agreed, either party to an employment-at-will arrangement may terminate the arrangement at any time for any reason or for no reason, as long as the termination "is not contrary to law." In addition, the employment-at-will doctrine has been repeatedly upheld and followed by most jurisdictions, including Ohio.

That is not to say that employment-at-will relationships have no defined limits. On the contrary, federal and state laws prohibit discrimination and retaliatory discharges based on race, religion, sex, age, national origin, disability, or for public policy reasons. In particular, one of Ohio's employment statutes provides as follows: "It is an...unlawful discriminatory practice: (A) For any employer, because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, handicap, age, or ancestry of a person, to discharge without just cause." In addition, Ohio and federal law forbid retaliatory discharges for filing workers' compensation claims, and for union activity, as well as for filing discrimination claims based on race, sex, age, or physical handicap. For more information, Ohio's employment laws are found at Title 41 of the Ohio Revised Code, and the federal anti-discrimination provisions can be found under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, to name just a few.

But, the Ohio courts have been reluctant to totally abolish the employment-at-will doctrine. According to the Ohio Supreme Court, "[s]uch an action would, among other things, place Ohio's courts in the untenable position of having to second-guess the business judgments of employers. The need for certainty and continuity in the law requires us to stand by precedent and not disturb the settled point unless extraordinary circumstances require it." As a result, most employment relationships in Ohio are governed by the long-standing employment-at-will doctrine, and both employers and employees may terminate their relationships at any time with or without reason. While that may seem unfair in certain situations, the parties' employment decisions are usually protected by the at-will doctrine, unless their decisions are because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age, ancestry, or against public policy.


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