Supreme Court Affirms COA on Employment At Will Case

In Franco v. Lipposcience, Inc., the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed per curiam an NC Court of Appeals decision regarding employment at will. The COA had issued a split-decision earlier this year, with Judge Wynn writing for the majority and Judge Erwin dissenting. The plaintiff, who had been the VP of Marketing, was terminated and sought to bring a breach of contract claim. At issue was whether he had a partial employment contract, or whether he was an ordinary at-will employee.

Most employees are employed at will, which means they can be fired for almost any reason and without regard to the quality of their performance. There are three general exceptions: (1) the employee has a contract with the employer, either individually or through a labor union; (2) federal and state statutes have created exceptions prohibiting employers from discharging employees based on impermissible considerations such as the employee's age, race, sex, religion, national origin, or disability, or in retaliation for filing certain claims against the employer; and (3) the state courts have created a public-policy exception to the employment-at-will rule.

In this case, at issue was whether the plaintiff had a contract with the company. It was unusual in that his father had been the board chairman of the company, and in retiring, had negotiated a severance agreement. Along with those negotiations, the Company also stated that it would not retaliate against the plaintiff because of his father. After being fired, plaintiff sued, claiming this is exactly what happened. The COA decided, and the Supreme Court agreed, that the non-retaliation statement was not a contract because it was not part of the written severance agreement. Thus, the plaintiff was an ordinary at-will employee.