Formal employment contracts can be for a specific term or may be terminated by one or both parties under certain conditions. When the agreement has no set term or can be ended by either party at any time, it is considered at-will employment. Last month, the North Carolina Court of Appeals confirmed that this at-will status allows the employer to require prospective changes to the employment relationship without being subject to a breach of contract claim.
In Brodkin v. Novant Health, Inc., the plaintiff was an oncologist employed under an agreement terminable by either party at any time. The hospital raised concerns over the physician’s treatment practices and, as a condition of continuing employment, required him to follow national treatment guidelines. After he refused these instructions and was terminated, the physician filed suit on a number of grounds, including breach of provisions of the employment contract that gave the physician discretion over patient treatment methods.
The court affirmed summary judgment for the hospital. Because the employment contract was at-will, the employer could insist on changes to its terms going forward. If the employee refuses to accept those changes, the employer always has the option of ending the employment relationship without breaching the agreement. The Court of Appeals also rejected the plaintiff’s wrongful discharge, fraud, and other claims associated with his separation from employment.
In some situations, higher-level employees will insist on the protections of a term employment agreement as a condition of accepting employment. However, if this term employment relationship is avoided, the employer has significant flexibility not only to end employment but also to make midcourse corrections to the other terms and conditions between the parties.