“Full Time”—It’s Not Clear Enough

In its recent opinion in In re C.P.Y. (copy here), the Texas Court of Appeals had occasion to consider the phrase “full-time basis,” and it concluded that it’s ambiguous.

Youst (the husband) was required to pay Wells (the wife) alimony until, among other events, she returned to work “on a full-time basis.” Wells got work as a contract attorney, so Youst sought an order declaring that he no longer had to pay alimony. The trial court found in favor of Youst.

Here’s how the appellate court summarized the arguments (citations omitted):

There appears to be no common definition of “full time,” and the divorce decree is silent as to what the parties intended. Under Youst’s interpretation, Wells’s first week of billing forty hours implicated termination of the alimony provision. Wells argues that her return to work on a full-time basis has meaning only if the word “basis” is given meaning beyond a single forty-hour week. Under the labor code definition urged by Youst and under other Texas statutes, the term “full time” is used in conjunction with “employers” and “employees” and may include benefits such as vacation. The decree contains no other mention of employment on a “full time basis.” The only other reference to “employment” is a requirement that Youst furnish health and dental insurance for the parties’ child “through [his] employment.” “Through employment” is defined to mean “through the party’s employment or membership in a union, trade association, or other organization.” This definition provides no further assistance in our attempt to harmonize all provisions of the decree to determine the parties’ intent as to the disputed language.

In sum, the language in the divorce decree relating to Wells’s return to work on a “full time basis” cannot be given a certain and definite meaning, and we cannot determine the true intentions of Youst and Wells from the expression in the writing itself. We also conclude the language is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation. Accordingly, the contract is ambiguous, and a fact issue exists as to the parties’ intent. The trial court therefore erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Youst, and the case must be remanded for a new trial.

So whatever the context, you should consider being specific as to what “full time” means. But in my persnickety way, I’m not sure that “full time” is ambiguous—it doesn’t offer distinct alternative meanings. Instead, I think it’s unduly general. (This is a nuance I discuss in chapter 6 of MSCD.) But I’ll chew it over some more.

Incidentally, this reminds me of my 2011 post on the phrase “at any time during my employment” (here).

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

6 thoughts on ““Full Time”—It’s Not Clear Enough”

  1. Actually, I think this raises two separate issues:

    1.  How many hours a week is “full-time.”  I was once involved in a situation where an employer provided health insurance to its “full-time” employees and defined “full-time” as working at least 56 hours/week!

    2.  For how long must an employee work “full-time” before it is working on a full-time basis?  And remember, this term is used to determine when the husband can stop paying alimony.  Would the first day of a full-time job end the payment obligation?  One week?  Working through the “probationary period,” if any?  Until she got tenure?  I would think that since the/a purpose of alimony is to give (in this case) the wife an opportunity to get back on her feet, it should be longer than the first day.

    3.  I think “work” could also be ambiguous:  is volunteer work “work”?  Is it any work, or work that pays a minimum amount?  Note that there is also a problem with the term “employment” — if a person starts her own business as a sole-proprietor or partner, she may not be “employed.”

    •  Point 2 seems to me the key one.  The ambiguity (or undue generality) arises from the word “basis” and not from the word “full-time”.  There seems to be an assumption in the judgment that working in the region of 40 hours in a week is working full-time in the US (different numbers of hours would apply on a country-by-country basis in the EU, subject to the upper limit of 48 hours defined by the Working Time Directive).

      There doesn’t seem to be any real controversy that working 25 hours per week (as the wife in this case seemed to average [sometimes?] [in total?]) is not full-time.

      Therefore, the issue seems to be whether working on variable hours that
      sometimes hit a full-time level amounts to a full-time “basis”.  I think the appeal court got it right when they said that summary judgment should not have been awarded on this issue.

      As for whether judgment should ultimately favour the husband, that is a difficult one, and one would need to look at the evidence of how the wife organised her working hours. It might be argued that one should take into account that the wife is making herself available on a full-time basis, even if she didn’t always get that much work.

      Alternatively, did she have an understanding with her employer that her availability was usually on a part-time basis and only occasionally would she work longer hours, to meet exceptional client requirements? Did she have hours that fitted around childcare?

      • Mark: I think that here and in most contexts, “basis” is redundant; see MSCD 12.27. The issue would still have arisen even if the contract had said “works full time.” By itself, “full-time” implies some period of time. Ken

        • Ken, on reflection, I’m coming round to that view, although I see a focus on the word “basis” in the extracts you quote above. I still see the legal uncertainty being not so much in the meaning of full-time (for simplicity, let’s say it is a minimum of 40 hours per week) but in whether a variable-hours job that is sometimes at or above and sometimes below 40 hours has the status of a full-time job.  In other words, to take your example, it is “works full time” that is the issue and not the words “full time”.

          English employment law defines a full-time worker as some who “…is identifiable as a full-time worker having regard to the custom and practice of the employer in relation to his other workers under the same type of contract.”  Although nowadays constrained by employment laws, traditionally an employer might provide different holiday or pension arrangements to someone whom it identifies as a part-time worker.  My sister is a nurse who works 4 days per week and does overtime on top, which probably brings her up to 40 hours in some weeks, but she is treated as part-time by her employer.

          • Mark: I know I’m being pedantic on a minor point, but I do think the uncertainty resides in “full time,” whether it’s used as an adverb (“works full time”) or adjective (“full-time employment”). Inherent in “full time” is the notion that it applies to work. Ken

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