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University of Iowa News Release


Nov. 28, 2011

Law students help experts reconsider state employment laws

Research from University of Iowa law students is helping to craft a possible new approach to state employment laws that apply to American workers whose jobs are not covered by a contract.

Since about 70 percent of American workers fall into this category of at-will employee, it's an issue that could affect many people. At-will employment is derived from a common law concept that says employers can fire employees for any reason. But decades of new laws and court decisions in each state have added exceptions and worker protections, taking the law down so many different roads that state at-will employment laws share little in common.

The laws have become so divergent that the legal profession is attempting to bring them together in one standard restatement of the law that will be used by judges, practicing attorneys, and legal scholars to guide them in their work. A recent conference in Chicago brought many of the top scholars, attorneys, judges, and several state Supreme Court justices to discuss the issue. Among the presenters were UI law professor Lea VanderVelde, also the conference's organizer, and three students in VanderVelde's Employment Law class: Sean Williams, Chelsea Moore, and Allison VanNatta.

The students each became experts on at-will employment laws in one or two states or territories, and then researched the those laws to see how they diverged from the initial common law idea. For instance, one issue they studied was whether an employee handbook is a binding contract between employer and employee. Some states recognize them as such, while others do not.

VanNatta found that the laws in Utah are so employer-friendly that they exempt employers with fewer than nine employees from discrimination laws. Since 76 percent of the state's businesses have fewer than nine employees, the majority of at-will workers in Utah have almost no legal recourse for employment discrimination.

Meanwhile, Williams found that Puerto Rico is so employee-friendly that employers must give fired at-will workers a financial payment if they are let go without just cause, rather than require the employee to file a lawsuit against the employer.

The students used a Wiki to organize, compare and contrast the laws from each state and Puerto Rico. Each state or territory gets its own page on the Wiki and is then divided into sections for the analysis of dozens of issues.

"It's easy to see that all states are different, and that there's no uniformity in the laws," said Moore. "They're similar in many ways, but the interpretations are different."

"Categorizing a state as an at-will employment state isn't true anymore because of all the different interpretations," said VanNatta.

VanderVelde said the students' findings could impact on how, or even if, the restatement goes forward.

"Their findings make an assessment of the state of the law in each of the 50 states considerably more complex than the relatively flat standard that the proposed restatement contains," VanderVelde said.

The research will be published in scholarly journals and be taken under consideration through the restatement's drafting process.

"Our objective is to contribute to the state of knowledge on the complexity of a broad field about which many lawyers and judges only know a single corner," VanderVelde said.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Lea VanderVelde, 319-335-9102; Tom Snee, 319-384-0010 (office), 319-541-8434 (cell),