The CEO of a client with a half-dozen employees recently asked, “We are about to start hiring again. I would like to add language regarding a 90 day probationary period. Is this a good idea?” My answer was “No.” Here’s why.
I had prepared a form of employment offer letter and an employee handbook for the client. Both of these documents state that employment is at-will. This means that either party may terminate the employment relationship at any time for any (non-discriminatory) reason or for no reason. As a result, at-will employment, by itself, allows a company to terminate the employment of an individual whose performance is inadequate during the first 90 days. A probationary period is not necessary.
California courts are known for not enforcing non-compete provisions except under narrowly-defined circumstances (see “California doesn’t *always* prohibit non-compete provisions”). In a case last year (Silguero v. Creteguard, Inc.), the Court of Appeal for the Second District held that an employer may not terminate an employee because of another company’s unenforceable non-compete agreement.
In 2003, Rosemary Silguero began working for Floor Seal Technology, Inc. (“FST”). In 2007, FST threatened Silguero with termination if she did not sign a confidentiality agreement that included an 18-month post-employment non-compete provision. Two months later, FST fired her.
Many people (indeed, too many lawyers) are not aware of the difference between termination of an agreement and expiration of an agreement. This post explains that difference and discusses why it matters.
Expiration is the ending of an agreement pursuant to its terms without any action by a party to the agreement. Expiration commonly occurs at the end of a defined period of time – for example, a lease may expire at the end of one year. Expiration may be linked to other events, however. For example, a patent license agreement may expire when the underlying patent expires.
Termination is the ending of an agreement as the result of an action taken by a party to the agreement. For example, an agreement may provide that either party may terminate it upon ten days’ written notice if the other party breaches the agreement and does not cure the breach during the ten-day notice period.
Why the difference matters: A carefully-drafted agreement may specify that a party’s rights after expiration differ from its rights after termination. For example, one of my clients has a license agreement under which the client incorporates pieces from a popular board game into jewelry. If the agreement expires, the client may sell off any remaining inventory during the 60-day period following expiration. In contrast, if the agreement is terminated by the licensor for breach by the licensee, there is no sell-off period.
Dana H. Shultz, Attorney at Law +1 510-547-0545 dana [at] danashultz [dot] com
This blog does not provide legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, please contact a lawyer directly.
Recently I have seen an increase in the number of current or former employees filing wage claims against their employers here in California. There often is a good reason for the filing. In my experience, employees typically do not spend time and effort on filing wage claims unless they have some basis for concluding they have been underpaid, such as:
- Unpaid wages, including commissions or bonuses.
- Accrued but unused vacation time not paid at the time of termination.
- Unauthorized deductions from paychecks.
Employment terminations are difficult for both managers and employees. Because of the sensitivities involved and the desire to avoid litigation, managers should take special care in drafting the severance agreement and release and in conducting the termination meeting.
For California employers, one of the most important contract provisions is to require that the employee waive all rights under Section 1542 of the California Civil Code. This Section, which is well-known to attorneys but not necessarily to business managers, states: “A general release does not extend to claims which the creditor does not know or suspect to exist in his or her favor at the time of executing the release, which if known by him or her must have materially affected his or her settlement with the debtor.”