How did the employment-at-will doctrine originate in the United States?

In England, the common rule was the so-called English rule, which provided that employment should be presumed for a year or through the respective season. This was a rule that provided a degree of protection to workers even when there was not the highest demand for labor. However, American employers in the late 1800s shifted focus to the at-will rule, perhaps as a way to complete in the growing industrial economy.

Many scholars trace the employment-at-will rule to a New York-based legal writer named Horace Gay Wood, who wrote in his treatise Master and Servant (1877): "[T]he rule is inflexible, that a general or indefinite hiring is prima facie a hiring at will, and if the servant seeks to make it out a yearly hiring, the burden is upon him to establish it by proof.... It is competent for either party to show what the mutual understanding of the parties was in reference to the matter; but unless their understanding was mutual that the service was to extend for a certain fixed and definite period, it is an indefinite hiring and is determinable at the will of either party." Wood's rule was that the burden was on the employee to show that the employment relationship was not governed by the employment-at-will relationship.

Wood's statement of the employment-at-will doctrine became the norm in laws throughout the states, as various state high courts cited Wood's treatise in adopting the doctrine. By the end of the 1930s, nearly every state had accepted the employment-at-will doctrine as the default rule in the employment setting.

What if an employer offers lifetime or permanent employment? Does the employment-at-will doctrine still apply?

Yes, in many jurisdictions the offer of permanent employment is considered to be for an indefinite term and the employment-at-will doctrine still applies. The offer of permanent employment is considered too indefinite to overcome the presumption that the employment-at-will doctrine applies.

However, sometimes courts will recognize seemingly lifetime contracts. For example, in a famous case involving former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson and his former trainer Kevin Rooney, the New York Court of Appeals (the state's highest court) found that an oral statement to Rooney that he could train the boxer "as long as he fights professionally" was a contract for a definite time period even though there was of course no guarantee as to how long Tyson would fight. The court concluded that "an oral contract between a fight trainer and a professional boxer to train the boxer 'for as long as the boxer fights professionally' is a contract for a definite duration."

How does a court determine a public policy exception to the at-will doctrine?

Different state courts apply different rules to determine when there are public policy exceptions to the at-will doctrine. Some states provide that public policy is evinced by

LegalSpeak: Rooney v. Tyson (N.Y. 1998)

A sensible path to declare New York law starts with these two steps: (1) if the duration is definite, the at-will doctrine is inapplicable, on the other hand, (2) if the employment term is indefinite or undefined, the rebuttable at-will presumption is operative and other factors come into the equation..

When an agreement is silent as to duration, however, it is presumptively at-will, absent an express or implied limitation on an employer's otherwise unfettered ability to discharge an employee. Only when we discern no term of some definiteness or no express limitation does the analysis switch over to the rebut-table presumption line of cases. They embody the principle that an employment relationship is terminable upon even the whim of either the employer or the employee. The agreement in this case is not silent and manifestly provides a sufficiently limiting framework..

The range of the employment relationship, concededly created and actualized for several years in the framework of this Federal dispute, is established by the definable commencement and conclusion of Tyson's professional boxing career. Though the times are not precisely predictable and calculable to dates certain, they are legally and experientially limited and ascertainable by objective benchmarks.

the legislature. In these states, if there is a specific law or statute that provides an exception to the at-will doctrine, that suffices to establish public policy. For example, the states of Pennsylvania and Tennessee provide that public policy is shown by the legislature—the branch of government most attuned to setting policy. In other states, the courts develop public policy exceptions judicially. This means that the state supreme court (usually the name for the highest court in a state) establishes public policy exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine.

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