Can I break my employment contract without penalties?

UPDATED: Sep 30, 2022

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Can I break my employment contract without penalties?

I am in a contract with a school district as a school nurse. The contract states that I need to complete the term 1 year or stay until someone else is hired. It is unlikely that they will be able to replace me within the timeframe I am looking at as we are already short nursing staff in the district. What steps can they take to keep me or prevent me from leaving? I don’t really have a choice, but to leave because I cannot afford my living expenses on the income I am currently making. I bring home approx. 25,800 per year. This is not enough for a single mom. I need to replace my job with something that pays significantly more. I received an offer but it won’t be official until Friday or next Monday. At that time I would like to give 2-weeks notice. What can happen if I do not fulfill the contract’s school year requirement?

Asked on September 20, 2016 under Employment Labor Law, Washington


SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 6 years ago | Contributor

If you contractually agreed to stay there for at least 1 year or until replaced, then if you violate the contract by leaving early, they can sue you for the costs they incur due to your breach. For example, if they have pay someone a premium salary (much more than yours) or hire a recruitor in order to get a replacement nurse fast, they could sue you for the difference in the salary or for the cost of the recruitor. When party A breaches a contract and causes party B to lose money or incur costs, party B can sue party A to recover those loses or costs. If they don't incur additional costs, they could not sue you, because then they suffered no "damages" (the legal term of costs, losses, etc.) to sue for.
The fact that you need more as a single mom or that your salary is very low is irrelevant: the law does not let you violate a contract simply because it is in your interest to do so. 
Now, the district might not choose to sue, because any costs, etc. they incur might be too small to make suing worthwhile; or they may not want the publicity of suing an underpaid single mom. But be aware that legally, there is the potential for liability if you violate your contract.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The Answer(s) provided above are for general information only. The attorney providing the answer was not serving as the attorney for the person submitting the question or in any attorney-client relationship with such person. Laws may vary from state to state, and sometimes change. Tiny variations in the facts, or a fact not set forth in a question, often can change a legal outcome or an attorney's conclusion. Although has verified the attorney was admitted to practice law in at least one jurisdiction, he or she may not be authorized to practice law in the jurisdiction referred to in the question, nor is he or she necessarily experienced in the area of the law involved. Unlike the information in the Answer(s) above, upon which you should NOT rely, for personal advice you can rely upon we suggest you retain an attorney to represent you.

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