This will probably be our last post on Man of Steel. No spoiler warning on this one, as I can set up the issue without giving anything of consequence away.
In Man of Steel, Lois Lane works as a reporter for the Daily Planet (no surprise there). At one point in the movie, she has a disagreement with her boss, Perry White, over whether to run a certain story, and she threatens to quit. White tells her that she can’t do that because she’s under contract, and Lois concedes the argument.
I. Employment Contracts
How can Lane’s employment contract prevent her from quitting her job? Surely the Planet can’t literally force her to work. Doesn’t the Thirteenth Amendment have something to say about that?
And it does. The Planet can’t force Lane to work, and a court can’t order her to work if she breaches her employment contract. But that doesn’t mean an employment contract is completely toothless from the employer’s point of view. There are two major techniques that the Planet might have used when drafting the contract to make it in Lane’s best interest to keep working for the Planet rather than quit: damages and a non-compete agreement.
Ordinarily in a breach of employment contract case it’s the employee who seeks damages from the employer, typically arguing that the employer owes them whatever they were due under the contract in the form of salary or other compensation. Of course, that only works if it’s the employer that broke the contract. If it’s the employee that reneged on the deal, then things could go the other way.
In cases where the employee is the breaching party, employers don’t often sue for damages because a) employees usually don’t have a lot of money and b) it’s difficult to say how much the employee’s work would have been worth. This is different from the reverse situation, where the employer typically has deep pockets and it’s very clear what the employee was owed in terms of salary.
One possible solution to this problem is a liquidated damages clause, which says something like “if Lane breaches the contract then she must pay the Planet $X.” Basically it’s an upfront agreement regarding the damages in the event of a breach of contract. There are some limits and restrictions on such clauses, but they are, in principle, allowed in employment contracts as long as they are reasonable and not punitive. See, e.g., Kozlik v. Emelco, Inc., 240 Neb. 525 (1992).
Faced with the prospect of having to pay the Planet the approximate value of her services to them, Lane would probably conclude that it was better to keep working.
III. Non-Compete Agreements
As the name suggests, these clauses bar the employee from competing with the employer after they quit working for the employer. Usually this means that the employee can’t work for a competitor or in the same industry for a certain period of time, typically no more than a few years. The agreement may also be limited geographically (e.g. only apply to the city where the employee was working).
Some states strongly disfavor non-compete agreements, whereas others are generally okay with them as long as they are reasonably narrow in scope. We don’t know where Metropolis is, but it’s likely that it’s in a state that accepts non-compete agreements. If Lois Lane was subject to a non-compete, then quitting the Planet would mean quitting being a journalist, at least in the Metropolis area. That’s a powerful incentive not to quit.
Although the Planet might not have literally been able to force Lane to keep working, her employment contract may have effectively done so anyway.