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Conner v. City of Forest Acres - 348 S.C. 454, 560 S.E.2d 606 (2002)

Rule:

Where the at-will status of an employee is altered by the terms of an employee handbook, an employer's discharge of an employee may give rise to a cause of action for wrongful discharge. Because an employee handbook may create a contract, the issue of the existence of an employment contract is proper for a jury when its existence is questioned and the evidence is either conflicting or admits of more than one inference

Facts:

Evelyn Conner worked for the City of Forest Acres (City) as a police dispatcher. She was hired in July 1984 and was terminated in October 1993.  Beginning in November 1992, Conner received numerous reprimands for such things as violating the dress code, tardiness, performing poor work, leaving work without permission, and using abusive language. In July 1993, Conner was evaluated as unsatisfactory and placed on a 90-day probation. She was reprimanded twice in August 1993, and her October 1993 evaluation showed only slight improvement; therefore, the City terminated her on October 7, 1993. Conner filed a grievance, and at the hearing before the grievance committee, she disputed many of the reprimands. The grievance committee voted 2-1 to reinstate Conner. The City Council, however, rejected the grievance committee's decision and voted to uphold Conner's termination.

After Conner was terminated, she brought suit against the City, and her supervisors on three causes of action: breach of contract, breach of contract accompanied by a fraudulent act, and bad faith discharge. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the City and the supervisors. The Court of Appeals reversed finding that a jury question existed regarding whether the handbook altered Conner's at-will employment status with the City. The Court of Appeals further found that there was a jury issue as to whether Conner was terminated for cause.

 On appeal, the court of appeals told Conner that her notice of appeal did not include the supervisory employees, but the error was not corrected until a second request from the court of appeals months later. Further review was sought in the Supreme Court of South Carolina.

Issue:

Whether the Mandatory language in the employee handbook created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the employee's at-will status was modified by policies in the handbook. 

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of South Carolina then reversed the judgment of the court of appeals as to its allowance of an amended notice of appeal including the supervisory employees, and those employees were dismissed, concluding that because the two supervisory employees who had not been served with a notice of appeal within the 30-day time period required by S.C. App. Ct. R. 203(b)(1), their eventual inclusion in the notice of appeal did not correct a mere clerical error, and they were prejudiced by the lengthy delay in amending the notice, which was erroneously allowed. Otherwise, the judgment of the court of appeals was affirmed.

Mandatory language in the employee handbook created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the employee's at-will status was modified by policies in the handbook. There was also a genuine issue as to whether the city had a reasonable good faith belief that sufficient cause existed for the employee's termination, given differing determinations of that issue by a grievance committee and the city council. There was also a genuine issue as to whether the city fraudulently breached an employment contract with the employee.

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