Wednesday, June 14, 2006

S.C. Court of Appeals issues employee handbook opinion

In a continuing trend, the South Carolina Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a cause of action for breach of contract based on an employee handbook. (Grant v. Mount Vernon Mills, Inc. Opinion No. 4122 (June 12, 2006). The plaintiff, Cynthia Grant, who was employed as a salaried Pension Benefits Manager at Mount Vernon Mills, was summarily terminated without warning for poor work performance and attitude. She argued that the termination provision in the company's employee handbook altered her at-will status. Specifically, Grant pointed to the fact that the handbook did not contain a conspicuous disclaimer. She also presented evidence by affidavit that other salaried employees routinely received warnings prior to termination. The Court rejected both of these arguments. According to the Court, the lack of a conspicuous disclaimer was not relevant because the termination policy expressly stated that it did not apply to salaried employees. The Court found that this was true notwithstanding the fact that the handbook had general statements relating "fair and just" treatment and it went on to opine that even if the termination policy could be construed as applying to Grant, nothing in the policy was couched in mandatory terms and therefore it did not contain promises enforceable in contract. With regard to the issue of whether other employees were issued warnings, the Court declined to recognize a contractual claim premised on an alleged practice stating, "Absent a contract of employment or other legally cognizable claim, courts have no business interfering with employers' decisions to warn or fire at-will employees."

(contributed by Sandi R. Wilson)

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