Since the early twentieth century, the law in Virginia has been founded upon the general principle that, absent a contractual requirement to the contrary, either the employee or employer may terminate the employment relationship “at-will”. Inherent in this construct, however, has been a requirement to provide “reasonable notice” of termination. This requirement has appeared in case law dating back more than 100 years. Recently, the Virginia Supreme Court clarified the meaning of this “reasonable notice” requirement in the at-will employment context.
Over the course of many years, lawyers in the employment field came to construe the “reasonable notice” requirement as tied to a measure of time, imposing some obligation to provide prior or advance notice. For employees and employers, this begged the arguably salutary question: how much prior notice would qualify as reasonable before one could quit a job or let someone go? Commentators posited that what was reasonable notice for someone who had been on the job for 20 years might not meet the same prior notice analysis for a new hire. An undeclared consensus evolved that one or two weeks’ prior notice was akin to a safe harbor, a de minimis proxy for reasonableness. From the employer’s perspective, this would mean providing either some prior notice or its equivalent in pay—the latter to avoid the potential for discord, unauthorized disclosures of employer information, or outright sabotage by an unwanted employee’s continued presence on the job during the advance notice period.
In the recent Virginia case, when an employee of 17 years was terminated from her real estate services firm without any advance notice, she argued that the employer had breached an implied term of her at-will employment. The case was dismissed as a result of the employer’s demurrer, and the employee appealed. The Virginia Supreme Court agreed with the employer, noting that “reasonable notice” did not include a “temporal component,” as urged by the employee. Rather, reasonable notice legally means “effective notice that the employment relationship has ended.”
The consequences from this decision may be felt in small ways for years to come in Virginia. It may entail an end to employers paying employees for one or two weeks’ pay upon immediate separation from service. It also may leave some employers vulnerable, however, to even longstanding or mature at-will employees quitting inopportunely and, absent any perceived negative legal consequences, without any concern for an employer's immediate staffing needs. The case is Johnston v. William E. Wood & Associates, Inc. (Va. 2016).