Fairfax Court Finds Mere Reference to By-Laws Insufficient to Incorporate Into Contract

In Virginia, employment is presumed to be at-will, but that presumption can be rebutted with evidence that the employment is for a specific period of time or that it can be terminated only for just cause. Virginia law says that contracts are to be construed as written and if the terms of the contract are clear, then those terms are to be given their plain meaning. A separate writing that is referenced in a written contract is construed as part of that agreement only if it is referred to with specificity and there is some expression of an intent to incorporate its terms into the agreement. As explained in a recent opinion by Judge Bruce D. White of Fairfax, “in order to incorporate the provisions of another document into the employment contract, the plain language of the employment contract must clearly reference and incorporate the terms of the document being incorporated.”

Johnson v. Versar was a lawsuit brought by William Johnson, Alexis Kayanan and Davy Jon Daniels against their former employer Versar, a government contractor based in Springfield, Virginia, for alleged breach of their employment contracts. They claimed that their employment was not at-will but was for a definite term. They based their argument on the fact that they received certain documents upon accepting employment that referenced Versar’s by-laws, which provided that officers “may be removed” by a majority vote of the board of directors. Because a resolution was never passed, they claimed that they were terminated in violation of their employment agreements.

Judge White sustained Versar’s demurrer with prejudice and dismissed the case. The Court found that the plaintiffs were at-will employees because the by-laws were not specifically and intentionally incorporated into the employment agreement. None of the offer letters referenced the by-laws, and the accompanying documents that did reference the by-laws did not indicate anyThe_Axe.jpg intent to incorporate their terms as part of the employment agreement.

The Court went on to say that even if the by-laws were incorporated into the employment contract, the language of the by-laws was not strong enough to overcome the plaintiffs’ at-will status. The by-laws only provided for how an officer “may” be removed. The use of that permissive word indicates that the possibilities for removal were not intended to be exhaustive. The by-laws did not provide that the employees could be removed only for just cause or that their employment was for a definite term, so their employment was deemed to be at-will.

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