Thursday, October 30, 2014

Failure to Specify At-Will Employment Allows Public Employee to Assert First-Amendment Retaliation Claim

The 7th Circuit issued a ruling today reversing dismissal of a First Amendment retaliation claim brought by a former adjunct professor at an Illinois community college (which is a public employer).  The plaintiff was terminated after writing a letter to an outside organization highly critical of the college's treatment of adjunct faculty.

In reversing the district court's dismissal of the First Amendment retaliation claim, the 7th Circuit held that the plaintiff had a protected interest in continued employment -- even though Illinois is an "at-will" jurisdiction and even though the plaintiff's 1-page employment agreement did not expressly provide for any heightened job protection.  However, the court focused on the absence of any language confirming the plaintiff's at-will status, as well as language in the employment agreement dealing with the specifics of the plaintiff's job responsibilities over the course of the academic year, which the court held could be construed to imply an expectation of employment for the year.

For employers, the key point is that for any employee you consider to be at-will, it is important that any employment agreement or employee handbook make this point clear.

--Jonathan Nadler

--Jon Nadler

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