Clay v. Horton Mfg. Co., Inc., 92-1300

Decision Date10 November 1992
Docket NumberNo. 92-1300,92-1300
Citation493 N.W.2d 379,172 Wis.2d 349
Parties, 123 Lab.Cas. P 57,155, 7 IER Cases 1544 Curtis CLAY, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. HORTON MANUFACTURING CO., INC., Defendant-Respondent.
CourtWisconsin Court of Appeals

On behalf of the plaintiff-appellant, the cause was submitted on the brief of David M. Erspamer of Erspamer Law Office, Amery.

On behalf of the defendant-respondent, the cause was submitted on the brief of R. Ann Huntrods and Margo L. Coyle of Briggs and Morgan, St. Paul, MN.

Before CANE, P.J., LaROCQUE and MYSE, JJ.

MYSE, Judge.

Curtis Clay appeals a summary judgment dismissing his claim for unlawful termination against his former employer, Horton Manufacturing Co., Inc. Clay contends that the terms of the company employe handbook and posted company policy regarding layoffs altered his at-will employe status, and that Horton Manufacturing breached the employment contract by failing to follow layoff procedures. Because we conclude that whether the employe handbook and company policy were intended to be part of the employment contract are disputed material facts, we reverse the grant of summary judgment.

Horton Manufacturing employed Clay for approximately seven years. When Clay began his employment, Horton Manufacturing gave him an employe handbook and advised him that it contained various company policies. Concerning layoffs, the handbook provided that "[l]ength of service is used as a basis for ... layoff...." The handbook stated that its policies were subject to change by management.

In 1988, Horton Manufacturing posted a policy statement regarding layoffs on the bulletin board. The policy provided in part:

2. Employees will be laid off/displaced based on their length of service within their work group in that department.

3. Any employee affected by a reduction in the workforce, or displaced, may be placed in a job within the same department at a rate equal to or lower than their rate prior to the workforce reduction/displacement, provided that they are qualified to do the job. It is understood that the employee will be assigned to a different job by the Plant Management, and must displace a less senior employee on the job for which he or she is qualified.

In 1989, Horton Manufacturing issued a revised employe handbook to all employes, including Clay. The first page of the revised handbook contained the following disclaimer: "This handbook is intended for informational purposes only and neither it, company practices, nor other communications create an employment contract or term.... [T]he policies ... outlined in this handbook are subject to ... change by management at any time." Regarding layoffs, the revised handbook provided that "[l]ength of service is used as a baseline for ... layoff...." 1

Clay asserts that notwithstanding the handbook's disclaimer, it became a part of his employment contract. He bases this assertion upon alleged repeated oral assurances by James Hasart, the plant superintendent, and other management personnel that the policies reflected in the employe handbook were binding on both Horton Manufacturing and its employes. Clay asserts that Hasart and Clay's supervisor, Dan Conroy, told him that employes and Horton Manufacturing had to "obey the employee handbook. We obey it, you obey it." He also claims that every time he had a question he was referred to the employe handbook and that he was repeatedly told that if he obeyed the rules in the handbook he would keep his job.

Hasart testified at deposition that he refers to the handbook when making personnel decisions and that he relies on the handbook's policies when answering employe questions. Hasart also stated that the handbook summarizes company policy and that he did not know if anyone at Horton Manufacturing had ever told Clay that the handbook was not binding on both Horton Manufacturing and its employes. However, Hasart also testified that he considered the handbook to be a guide.

Clay also alleges that the 1988 posted policy became a part of his employment contract. He claims that management personnel told him that employes with less seniority would be laid off first. Hasart also testified at deposition that posted policies are enforceable to the same extent as the handbook.

Clay contends that the revised handbook's provisions and the 1988 posted policy modified the terms of his employment contract and that Horton Manufacturing breached the employment contract by laying him off inconsistent with company policy. Horton Manufacturing concedes that at the time Clay was laid off, he had seniority over two-thirds of its employes.

When reviewing a grant of summary judgment, we apply the same methodology as the trial court. Schultz v. Industrial Coils, Inc., 125 Wis.2d 520, 521, 373 N.W.2d 74, 74 (Ct.App.1985).

We first examine the complaint to determine whether a claim has been stated and then the answer to ascertain whether it presents a material issue of fact. If they do, we then examine the moving party's affidavits to determine whether a prima facie case for summary judgment has been made--in this case a defense which would defeat the plaintiff's claim. If it has, we look to the opposing party's affidavits [or other proof] to determine whether any material facts are in dispute which would entitle the opposing party to a trial.

Id. at 521, 373 N.W.2d at 74-75 (citations omitted; emphasis in original).

If there are disputed issues of material fact, a grant of summary judgment is inappropriate and must be reversed so that the disputes can be resolved by a factfinder after trial. Tomlinson v. MidAmerica Mut. Life Ins. Co., 168 Wis.2d 92, 95-96, 483 N.W.2d 234, 236 (Ct.App.1992). The...

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