Wednesday, July 20, 2005

South Carolina Supreme Court Clarifies Handbook Law

In it most recent analysis of Hessenthaler v. Tri-County Sister Help, Inc., Opinion No. 25650, the Court held that an equal opportunity non-discrimination policy in the employer's handbook did not constitute a promise that altered the plaintiff's at-will employment status.

The plaintiff argued that her employer, which did not have a sufficient number of employees to bring it within the purview of Title VII, constructively discharged her employment on the basis of her race in violation of the policy. The Court reasoned that unlike a mandatory, progressive disciplinary policy, "a general policy statement of non-discrimination does not create an expectation that employment is guaranteed for any specific duration or that a particular process must be followed before an employee may be fired."

According to the Court, to be contractually enforceable, "general policy statements must be definitive in nature, promising specific treatment in specific situations." Since the non-discrimination policy at issue did not make any promises regarding disciplinary procedure or termination decisions, it did not create an enforceable contract.

Of equal significance for South Carolina employers who typically find themselves on the losing end of handbook cases and hitherto rarely obtained summary judgment, the Court noted that it is incumbent on South Carolina courts to intervene and resolve handbook cases as a matter of law if both the policy at issue and the disclaimer, taken together, clearly establish that a promise does not exist. Since the South Carolina legislature defined what constitutes what a conspicuous disclaimer last year in response to prior, more plaintiff oriented handbook cases, and this case clarifies and arguably narrows the definition of an enforceable promise, employers have some reason to hope that the tide is turning in their favor.

(Entry contributed by Sandi R. Wilson)

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