Dangerous Pitfalls in Starting New Job

In the recent 2016 case of Wakeley v. M.J. Bruner, Inc., the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled against an employee who had been terminated shortly after starting a new job.

Katie Wakeley had been living in Texas, with her husband and child, where she had a stable job as a project manager for an advertising agency. Ms. Wakeley was approached by a Pittsburgh-based company, which offered her a job that paid a higher salary, plus relocation expenses.  She accepted the job, moved her family to Pittsburgh and bought a home with a 30-year mortgage.  Upon arrival, the employer required that Katie sign a “Confirmation of Employment” document, which identified her title, salary and start date, and further stated that she was an employee “at-will”.  Pennsylvania follows a system of “at-will” employment, meaning that an employer may fire an employee at any time, for any reason or for no reason, with only minimal exceptions.  Katie’s new position proved to be far less desirable than promised, and the employer fired her after only a few months on the job.

Faced with a significant loss in income, Katie filed a lawsuit alleging breach of an employment contract.  The employer responded that she was an “at-will” employee who could be fired at any time.  Katie argued that her discussions with the employer, coupled with her relocation and assumption of a mortgage, created an implied contract that she would be employed for a reasonable period of time.  The Superior Court ruled in favor of the employer, based upon the fact that Katie signed the document that she would be treated as an “at-will” employee.  Had she consulted with an attorney prior to signing the papers, Katie may have been able to further negotiate the terms of her employment to protect herself from this unfortunate outcome.

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