THE STATE OF
In The Supreme Court
Jennifer R. Cape, Appellant,
County School District, Respondent.
Larry R. Patterson, Circuit Court Judge
Opinion No. 26019
Heard June 15, 2005 - Filed August 1, 2005
Alton Phillips, of Phillips Law Firm, of Greenville, for Appellant.
Sean Ashley Scoopmire, of Clarkson Walsh Rheney & Turner, PA, of
Greenville, for Respondent.
JUSTICE PLEICONES: This is an appeal from a circuit court order holding that an employment contract for a definite term which contains an at-will termination clause is valid, and granting respondent (School District) summary judgment in this breach of contract suit brought by appellant (Cape), a fired teacher. We affirm.
December 5, 2001, Cape signed a contract with the
THIS IS AN AT-WILL EMPLOYMENT CONTRACT. IT MAY BE TERMINATED AT ANY TIME FOR ANY REASON OR FOR NO REASON BY EITHER EMPLOYER OR EMPLOYEE. EMPLOYEE AGREES THAT THERE EXISTS NO RIGHT TO CHALLENGE TERMINATION OF THIS CONTRACT BY EMPLOYER. EMPLOYEE FURTHER AGREES THAT THIS IS A NONRENEWABLE CONTRACT AND THERE EXISTS NO RIGHT TO CHALLENGE ANY FAILURE TO CONTINUE THIS CONTRACT BEYOND THIS TERM.
Did the trial court err in granting
School District summary judgment? 
circuit court granted School District summary judgment, finding that under the
express terms of her contract
argues the judge erred in finding her contract was at-will. She correctly
points out that decisions from this Court have indicated an employment contract
for a specific term cannot also be at-will because these terms are mutually
exclusively. E.g., Stiles v. American Gen. Life Ins. Co.,
335 S.C. 222, 516 S.E.2d 449 (1999); Shivers v. John H. Harland Co., 310
S.C. 217, 423 S.E.2d 105 (1992); Young v. McKelvey, 286 S.C. 119, 333
S.E.2d 566 (1985). School District counters with the accurate observation
that these decisions all involved contracts of indefinite duration that provided
for pre-termination notice, and further observes that Cape’s contract is not
of indefinite duration but for a definite term, contains no such notice
provision, and includes the “at-will” provision recited above. We
Cape relies heavily on this
statement from Young v. McKelvey, which is a quote from a
An employment contract may be either for a stated term or at will. When the contract is at will, it may be terminated by either party at any time. However, when the contract is for a stated term, it may only be terminated before the end of the term by just cause….
Chai Mgmt., Inc. v. Lubowitz, 50
Md. App. 504, 439 A.2d 34 (1982).
In Chai, the contract was of indefinite duration but included a provision that, “This contract can be terminated by either party with a written sixty day notice.” Similarly, the contract at issue in Young v. McKelvey was for an indefinite term, but contained a provision that it could be cancelled upon 60 days written notice by either party. The Court held this notice provision converted the contract from one terminable at will, that is, at anytime for any reason or no reason, to one of sixty days duration upon the giving of notice. Thus, the employee could not be terminated until 60 days after the giving of notice unless just cause for the termination existed. Young v. McKelvey, supra. The notice provision altered the parties’ absolute right to terminate from “at will” to “upon the giving of notice.”
The contract in Shivers v. John C. Harland, Inc. was also for an indeterminate period, but specifically provided for immediate discharge for cause, or for “voluntary termination” by either party upon 15 days written notice. This contract, like that in Young v. McKelvey, altered the right to terminate from at-will to upon the giving of the stated notice. The most recent decision, Stiles v. American Gen. Life Ins. Co., is instructive in that it refers to contracts such as those at issue in it and in Shivers as “at-will contracts with a notice [of termination] provision.” These cases did not involve the type of employment contract at issue here: “a definite term contract with an at-will termination provision.”
An employment contract for an
indefinite term is presumptively terminable at will, while a contract for a
definite term is presumptively terminable only upon just cause. These are
mere presumptions, however, which the parties can alter by express contract
provisions. For example, our employee handbook decisions have involved
indefinite duration contracts where the at-will termination presumption has been
altered by language used in the handbook. E.g., Small v. Springs
Indus., Inc., 292 S.C. 481, 357 S.E.2d 452 (1987). In the three
decisions cited by
The judge correctly held this employment contract, while for a definite term, was terminable at will.
TOAL, C.J., MOORE, WALLER and BURNETT, JJ., concur.
 While Cape raises a number of issues on appeal, we address only this novel question. The rulings on the other issues are affirmed pursuant to Rule 220(b)(1), SCACR.