In The Court of Appeals

Joy Young,        Appellant,


Montessori Elementary School of St. Andrews, Inc.        Respondent.

Appeal From Richland County
John L. Breeden, Jr., Circuit Court Judge

Unpublished Opinion No. 2003-UP-385
Heard April 10, 2003 – Filed June 5, 2003


Gerald F. Smith, of Columbia, for Appellant.

J. Charles Ormond, Jr. of Columbia, for Respondent.

PER CURIAM:  Joy Young brought this action against Montessori Elementary School of St. Andrews, Inc. (Montessori) for breach of an employment contract.  The trial court granted summary judgment to Montessori.  We affirm.


Montessori extended an offer of employment to Young, which is set forth in full below.

By this letter we invite you to join the Montessori Elementary School of St. Andrews, Inc., initially on a part-time basis.  You will start at an hourly salary of $10 to be paid biweekly.  Your hours, as of this writing, will be from noon until 5:30 p.m. daily.  Your date to begin work is June 1.  Additional benefits include:

(1)       paid tuition for the St. Nicholas/London Centre primary teacher-training program, and, upon completion and agreement, the elementary training;

(2)       tuition consideration for your two children currently enrolled at the Montessori Early Learning Center;

(3)       the option to enroll in the school’s group health insurance plan, with pretax payroll deduction of premiums from your biweekly salary installment; and

(4)       paid vacation, including holidays (as named in the parent handbook) and two weeks of vacation during the summer months, beginning in the summer of 2000.

This offer of employment is contingent on:

(1)       your agreement to complete the training program within 18 months and to remain as a full-time teacher at the school for at least two years;

(2)       completion of a background check, including State Law Enforcement Division fingerprinting, with results that satisfy us, at our sole discretion, as to your fitness to work with children; and

(3)       your certification by the American Red Cross for the practice of Standard First Aid and Adult CPR.

Please return an original signed copy of this letter to the School’s address.  If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call us. 

The next year, Montessori advised Young she was required to enter into a new annual teacher employment contract and a “teacher in training sponsorship” contract.  Young refused to accept the terms of the new contracts, the parties were unable to reach a meeting of the minds, the contracts were never signed, and Young was terminated. 

The court granted Montessori’s motion for summary judgment, finding the contract was not for a definite term but rather created an employment-at-will relationship. 


It is well settled that summary judgment is appropriate only where there is no genuine issue of material fact.  Rule 56, SCRCP.  The Court must construe all ambiguities, conclusions, and interferences arising from the evidence against the moving party; however, the opposing party may not rest upon mere allegations or denials, but must respond with specific facts showing a genuine issue. 

City of Columbia v. Town of Irmo, 316 S.C. 193, 195, 447 S.E.2d 855, 857 (1994); see also Rule 56, SCRCP. 

Where an action presents a question as to the construction of a written contract and the language of the contract is clear and unambiguous, the question is one of law.  When a court construes an employment contract, as with any contract, resort is first made to the language of the contract in issue, and if the language is perfectly plain and capable of legal construction, it determines the rights and obligations of the parties. 

Holden v. Alice Mfg., Inc., 317 S.C. 215, 220, 452 S.E.2d 628, 631 (Ct. App. 1994) (citations omitted).


Under the express terms of the contract, the two-year period of the full-time teaching position would not begin until the eighteen months of training were completed.  Young testified that she had stopped short of completing the training.  Thus, by her failure to meet an express contingency of the contract, the two-year term was never triggered.

South Carolina has long recognized the doctrine of employment at-will.  Pursuant to this doctrine, “a contract for permanent employment, so long as it is satisfactorily performed which is not supported by any consideration other than the obligation or service to be performed on the one hand and the wages to be paid on the other, is terminable at the pleasure of either party.”

Prescott v. Farmers Tel. Coop., Inc., 335 S.C. 330, 334, 516 S.E.2d 923, 925 (1999) (quoting Shealy v. Fowler, 182 S.C. 81, 87, 188 S.E. 499, 502 (1936)).  “An individual working for an employer under a contract of employment for an indefinite period can be terminated at will.”  Williams v. Riedman, 339 S.C. 251, 259, 529 S.E.2d 28, 32 (Ct. App. 2000); see also Orsini v. Trojan Steel Corp., 219 S.C. 272, 277, 64 S.E.2d 878, 880 (1951) (“‘Ordinarily, where there is no additional expression as to duration, a contract for permanent employment implies an indefinite general hiring, terminable at will.’”) (quoting Malever v. Kay Jewelry Co., 25 S.E.2d 436, 437 (N.C. 1943)).

In her deposition, Young testified she clearly understood that, under the contract, she could quit or be terminated at anytime within the 18 month training period without any obligation to repay any monies spent on her behalf for training by Montessori. 

Q:  So you could leave after two and a half if you wanted to?
A:  Or before two and a half.
Q: Or you could leave before, whenever you wanted to leave, you could leave?
A:  Right, and there would not be a repayment.

“The subject matter and purposes of a contract are to be considered in ascertaining the intention of the parties and the meaning of the terms use[d].”  Holden, 317 S.C. at 221, 452 S.E.2d at 631.  “[I]n determining the intent and purport of a contract, the court should not look solely to one clause read in isolation from the rest of the document; rather, it should consider the contents of the whole instrument[.]”  Id. (citation omitted).

The overall structure of the contract indicates Montessori was bound by one half and Young was bound by the other half.  One part clearly sets out Young’s consideration and duties, and the other clearly sets out Montessori’s consideration and duties.  We agree with the trial court that the contract evinces no mutuality of the term of employment.  Young’s own testimony and understanding buttresses this conclusion.

Young now urges an interpretation of the contract that would require Montessori to employ her as long as she attended the training school for which Montessori paid, regardless of her job performance, while at the same time contending that she had the option of quitting at any time without repaying the training costs.  Her prior testimony is contradictory to her current position.  In the final analysis, the contract sets forth the consideration provided by each party, but contains no definite term of employment.  “In no one of these written instruments does there appear a definite date of termination for appellant’s employment . . . .  Nor in Young’s testimony is it established that the respondent guaranteed [her] a job for a fixed determinable period of time.”  Young v. Indep. Publ’g Co., 273 S.C. 107, 111, 254 S.E.2d 681, 683 (1979).  The trial court properly found that both parties contemplated this as at will employment. 

Because we agree the contract admits to only one interpretation and creates no question of fact for the jury, we find no error in the trial court’s grant of summary judgment and agree with its findings, which are well articulated in its order.


STILWELL and HOWARD, JJ., and STROM, Acting Judge, concur.