Do not assume that your employee handbook gives you rights

Many laws on employment-related issues vary from state to state, and some of those variations affect how and when an employment relationship may be terminated. Florida, like many other states, uses an at-will employment structure. This means that, with certain exceptions, either party can end the employment relationship at any time and for any reason - with or without cause.

Exceptions to at-will employment

When a worker is terminated under circumstances that are out of line with Florida's at-will employment law, it may be grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. At-will employment principles do not apply in situations where a termination occurs for illegal or discriminatory reasons, for instance due to the employee's race, religion or disability, or when the termination goes against public policy. Another important exception to Florida's at-will employment law is when there is a collective bargaining agreement or an employment contract in place.

Employee handbooks are usually not contracts

Sometimes, an employer may provide workers with an employee handbook or personnel guidelines stating that workers will be given a warning before they are fired, for instance due to performance issues. At least in theory, this advance warning can provide the worker with notice of the underlying problem and give him or her the opportunity to correct it, thereby potentially avoid termination.

However, while often made with good intentions, statements such as these can be misleading if they create the impression of a contractual employment agreement without actually doing so. Although many workers may regard an employee handbook or personnel policy as an agreement, and may rely on the statements made within it, in reality those documents often have little to no legal weight under Florida law.

Florida courts favor at-will employment

In Florida, statements made in employee handbooks do not generally give employees any additional legal rights beyond those already provided for under state and federal law. This is not always the case in other states, where the courts often look more favorably on implied contracts and thus may be more likely to rule that the statements made in an employee handbook are binding. In Florida, however, the courts favor a strong presumption of at-will employment and thus are likely to rule against an employee who attempts to rely on a personnel agreement or employee handbook in a wrongful termination case.

If you have questions about your legal rights regarding a recent termination or other employment-related matter in Florida, contact the Law Office of William M. Julien, P.A., to arrange a personalized consultation.