Employer Discretion Not Unlimited in Deciding What Is “Cause” for Contractual Termination or Severance

Some workers have employment contracts that say their employers can only discharge them for “cause” (or similar concept), and any discharge that’s not for cause requires the employers to pay a severance or contractual penalty payment.  When I see contracts like this, it’s often with professional workers like doctors, executives, etc.

It’s common for such employment contracts to define “cause” very broadly, and to give the employer a great deal of discretion to decide what “cause” is or isn’t. For example, such contracts sometimes define “Cause” to include vague concepts like “Violations of any Company policy as determined in the Company’s discretion.”

Then I get inquiries from professionals who are in fact discharged and, unsurprisingly, their employers conveniently claim the discharge was for “Cause” because there was (surprise!) a “policy violation” in the Company’s assessment.  Worse, employers who do this often fail to give details or specifics, relying on vague accusations along with the vague contractual terms.  Using these tactics, the employers then fail to pay the contract’s defined severance- or penalty- payment, or they offer a drastically reduced payment. When a reduced payment is offered, it’s included as part of a severance contract that requires waiver of potential legal claims, i.e. part of the “deal” for the worker is to waive his or her rights to a legal action seeking the full contractual payment.

If you’re in this situation, you should know that you may have options, regardless of how vaguely “cause” or related terms are defined in your employment contract.

For example, in my home state of Wisconsin, state Courts have found that an employer with such contract-based termination standards is required to have a true and honest reason for termination. The employer cannot make up a false reason or pretext for termination. These issues are discussed in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals case Hale v. Stoughton Hospital Ass’n, Inc., 126 Wis.2d 267, 275-276. So regardless of the contractual discretion such an employer tries to reserve for itself, it is subject to a baseline standard: honesty. Another given State’s law may have similar rights.

Further, there are often additional State law standards that apply to a job termination, depending on the circumstances. For example, if the true reason for a WI employer’s discharge decision involves the avoidance of paying a vested benefit– e.g. the worker earned a bonus that the employer avoids paying via the timing of its discharge– then this is legally-prohibited under Wisconsin law as well. Such issues are addressed in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals case Phillips v. US Bank, 781 NW 2d 540.

There are many additional examples of unlawful terminations– such as discriminatory or retaliatory discharges prohibited under numerous Federal and State statutes and regulations– which also depend on the factual circumstances of a job termination.

To make a long story short, if you have been discharged and have an employment contract that reserves a lot of discretion for the employer when it comes to “cause” or severance issues, you should not assume you’re out of luck.  Please consider having your situation reviewed by a competent employee rights attorney. And no, it doesn’t have to be me, although I’d be glad to review the situation at no charge 🙂


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