Promissory estoppel exception to at-will employment

posted by Neil Klingshirn  |  Jul 14, 2009 5:22 PM [EST]  |  applies to Ohio

In general, under the employment-at-will doctrine, the employment relationship between employer and employee is terminable at the will of either.  See At-will Employment.  In Mers v. Dispatch Printing Co. (1985), 19 Ohio St.3d 100, 104-105, however, the Ohio Supreme Court applied the doctrine of promissory estoppel to create an exception to the doctrine of employment at-will.

Promissory Estoppel Elements

A limit on an employer's right to discharge occurs "where representations or promises have been made to the employee which fall within the doctrine of promissory estoppel." Mers v. Dispatch Printing Co., 19 Ohio St. 3d 100, 104 (Ohio 1985).  Therefore, a promise:

  1. which the promisor should reasonably expect to induce action or forbearance on the part of the promisee or a third person; and
  2. which does induce such action or forbearance
  3. is binding if injustice can be avoided only by enforcement of the promise.


In Mers, the Court allowed an employee to pursue a claim that he relied to his detriment on his employer's promise that he would be reinstated with back pay if pending criminal charges were "favorably resolved."  The employee relied on this representation to his detriment by seeking "no other employment while he went about the task of fulfilling the condition for reemployment."  Wing v. Anchor Media, Ltd., 59 Ohio St. 3d 108, 110-111 (Ohio 1991). 

However, "merely turning down other employment inquiries" did not rise to substantial detrimental reliance." Id.

Wing also held that

The promise of a future opportunity to buy into the (business) . . . is not a promise of continued employment and, therefore, cannot reasonably be relied upon as such. Rather, such a promise is, at best, a promise relating to career development. Accordingly, we hold that a promise of future benefits or opportunities without a specific promise of continued employment does not support a promissory estoppel exception to the well-established doctrine of employment-at-will.

Id. Hence, an offer of employment that included a relocation package but not a specific promise of continued employment did not establish the promissory estoppel exception. Clark v. Collins Bus Corp., 136 Ohio App. 3d 448, 452 (Ohio Ct. App., Allen County 2000)

posted by Neil Klingshirn  |  Jul 14, 2009 5:22 PM [EST]  |  applies to Ohio

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