Jones v. General Elec. Co., No. 2839.

CourtCourt of Appeals of South Carolina
Writing for the CourtANDERSON.
Citation503 S.E.2d 173,331 S.C. 351
PartiesRoy Todd JONES, Appellant, v. GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY and Richard Carpenter, Defendants, of whom General Electric Company is Respondent.
Decision Date04 May 1998
Docket NumberNo. 2839.

331 S.C. 351
503 S.E.2d 173

Roy Todd JONES, Appellant,
v.
GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY and Richard Carpenter, Defendants, of whom General Electric Company is Respondent

No. 2839.

Court of Appeals of South Carolina.

Submitted April 7, 1998.

Decided May 4, 1998.

Rehearing Denied August 20, 1998.


331 S.C. 352
M. Lee Daniels, Jr., of Wimberly, Lawson, Daniels & Brandon, Greenville, for Appellant

William H. Foster and Steven M. Wynkoop, both of Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough, Greenville, for Respondent.

ANDERSON, Judge:

This is a wrongful termination case involving an employee handbook. Roy Todd Jones appeals the trial court's decision to direct a verdict in favor of his former employer, General Electric Company (G.E.). Specifically, Jones appeals the trial court's rulings that (1) G.E.'s employee handbook did not create a contract altering Jones's at-will employment status; and (2) even if the handbook created an employment contract, Jones failed to prove that G.E. breached it. We reverse and remand.1

331 S.C. 353
FACTUAL/PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Jones began working for G.E. in 1991, when he accepted a position as a fabricator. His duties consisted of welding metal panels to machinery to protect it from foreign objects during shipping.

Shortly after G.E. hired him, Jones attended an orientation meeting for new employees. During this meeting, the employees were given G.E. employee handbooks. When all of the new employees had received a copy of this handbook, the orientation speaker informed them that G.E. abided by the rules in the handbook and that, essentially, the handbook was G.E.'s "bible." No one at this meeting, however, told the new employees that the handbook was not to be considered a contract or that G.E. was not bound by the rules appearing therein.

Published in 1988, the handbook contained G.E.'s rules and policies, as well as other general employment information. The Foreword included language stating employment at G.E. was at will. For ease of use, G.E. divided the handbook into separate, tabbed sections. One of these tabbed sections specifically addressed G.E.'s work rules. At the end of the Work Rules section, G.E. delineated specific rules regarding proper conduct which G.E. expected its employees to follow. G.E. prefaced these rules with the following statement:

Rules defining conduct are necessary at GE as in all organizations which rely for their success on people working together effectively, harmoniously and safely. Infractions of these rules may lead to disciplinary actions up to and including discharge.
The lists which follow are typical of behavior which can result in disciplinary action including discharge, but are not all-inclusive. Disciplinary action may be appropriate in situations in addition to those listed here.

Immediately following this statement were two lists of rules. The handbook described the first list, entitled "Class I" violations, as "typical examples of behavior which is prohibited and in which a single offense subjects the involved employee(s) to discharge." The second list contained "Class II" violations, which were described as "offenses which, with repetition, will lead to disciplinary time off and/or discharge." One example

331 S.C. 354
of a Class I violation is "[f]alsifying or forging" any company or business-related document or record. However, as noted above, the handbook provided the examples of violations listed were not all-inclusive

In 1993, Jones attended a meeting during which G.E. personnel distributed a revised version of the G.E. employee handbook. This revised version contained substantially the same information as the 1988 handbook in the section on Work Rules. Similar language appears in the Foreword, but this time a sentence stating that the handbook is not a guarantee of employment or a contract appears in all capitals in the body of the Foreword.

The events leading to Jones's termination began the night of March 30, 1994 when Allen Duncan, a G.E. supervisor on the second shift, instructed Jones and Richard Carpenter, who were both working the third shift, to install an insulator panel on turbine No. 5510. The third shift began at 7:00 p.m. Before Jones and Carpenter installed the panel, a Quality Control (QC) inspector verified that the turbine inlet was free from all foreign objects and stamped the turbine's paperwork to reflect that the unit had passed inspection.

Following this inspection, Jones and Carpenter installed the insulator panel. Once they finished the job, Jones placed the turbine's paperwork in the proper cubicle, and he and Carpenter attended to other jobs in the plant. Jones left early that night and did not return to work until after the Easter holiday.

In the meantime, at the end of his shift, Carpenter approached Eugene Blake, a co-worker who was temporarily working on the first shift, telling him that a washer had fallen into the turbine and asking Blake to retrieve it. While Carpenter was explaining the incident to Blake, Duncan overheard the conversation and confronted Carpenter. Carpenter then admitted that a washer had been dropped in the turbine unit. Carpenter maintained that when he suggested that they remove the washer, Jones told him to leave the washer in the unit.2 After speaking with Carpenter, Duncan instructed

331 S.C. 355
Blake to enter the unit and remove the washer. Blake found the washer and removed it

Duncan reported this incident to Joe Rae, the second- and third-shift manager. Rae later met with Carpenter, who confirmed Duncan's account of the incident. Carpenter admitted to Rae that he (Carpenter) had actually dropped the washer in the turbine, but asserted Jones told him to leave it in the unit. When Jones returned from vacation, Rae confronted him about the incident. Jones denied having any knowledge that a washer had been left in the turbine unit. Jones stated that to his knowledge, nothing unusual had occurred during the installation of the panel before he left for the holiday.

Having heard both Carpenter's and Jones's versions of the incident, Rae met with his supervisor, a human resources representative, and Duncan to discuss the facts surrounding the incident and to consider the available disciplinary options. After discussing the incident, they decided to terminate Jones's employment for falsifying a company document. Although Jones had not written anything on the paperwork for the turbine, they viewed Jones's failure to take any corrective action once he was allegedly aware that a washer had fallen into the turbine as tantamount to falsification of the QC report, a Class I violation. In a letter Rae wrote to Jones on April 6, 1994 terminating Jones's employment with G.E., Rae stated G.E. was terminating Jones's employment for falsifying a company document. Under the terms of G.E.'s employee handbook, this offense was a Class I violation, subjecting Jones to immediate discharge.

Jones appealed his termination through the employee grievance process, but to no avail. Jones then brought this lawsuit against G.E., alleging G.E.'s employment handbook created an employment contract which G.E. had breached and that G.E. had defamed him. At trial, G.E. moved for a directed verdict on all of Jones's causes of action. The trial court granted G.E.'s motion, finding Jones had failed, as a matter of law, to establish the G.E. employee handbook created a contract of employment. Alternatively, the trial court ruled that even if

331 S.C. 356
the handbook had constituted an employment contract, Jones failed to prove G.E. had breached its terms. Jones appeals.

ISSUES

(1) Did the trial court err in concluding that, as a matter of law, G.E.'s employee handbook did not create an employment contract?
(2) Did the trial court err in finding that, as a matter of law, Jones failed to prove G.E. breached the employment contract when it terminated his employment?

STANDARD OF REVIEW

It is well established that when considering a motion for a directed verdict, the trial court must view the evidence and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. If the evidence as a whole is susceptible of more than one reasonable inference, the case should be submitted to the jury. Gamble v. Int'l Paper Realty Corp., 323 S.C. 367, 474 S.E.2d 438 (1996); Rice v. Multimedia, Inc., 318 S.C. 95, 456 S.E.2d 381 (1995). See also Creech v. South Carolina Wildlife & Marine Resources Dep't, 328 S.C. 24, 491 S.E.2d 571 (1997) (in ruling on a motion for a directed verdict, the trial court must view the evidence and the inferences that reasonably can be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion).

In ruling on a directed verdict motion, the trial court is concerned only with the existence or non-existence of evidence, and the court does not have the authority to decide credibility issues or to resolve conflicts in the testimony. Garrett v. Locke, 309 S.C. 94, 419 S.E.2d 842 (Ct.App.1992) (judge erred in granting directed verdict where more than one inference arose from the evidence; conflicts in the testimony were for the jury to resolve as the finders of fact).

In reviewing the grant of a directed verdict, the appellate court should not ignore facts unfavorable to the opposing party. Rather, it must determine whether a verdict for the opposing party would be reasonably possible under the facts as liberally construed in his favor. Bultman v. Barber, 277 S.C. 5, 281 S.E.2d 791 (1981). See also Hanahan v. Simpson,

331 S.C. 357
326 S.C. 140, 485 S.E.2d 903 (1997) (in reviewing a directed verdict, the appellate court must determine whether a verdict for the party opposing the motion would have been reasonably possible under the facts; the question becomes one of law for the trial court where only one reasonable inference can be deduced from the evidence); First State Sav. & Loan v. Phelps, 299 S.C. 441, 385 S.E.2d 821 (1989) (in reviewing the granting of...

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14 practice notes
  • Wright v. Craft, No. 4181.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • November 27, 2006
    ...for the opposing party would be reasonably possible under the facts as liberally construed in his favor." Jones v. General Electric Co., 331 S.C. 351, 356, 503 S.E.2d 173, 176 This court will reverse the trial court's ruling on a directed verdict motion only if no evidence exists to support......
  • Williams v. Riedman, No. 3127.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • February 28, 2000
    ...the evidence is conflicting or admits of more than one inference. Small I, 292 S.C. at 483, 357 S.E.2d at 454; Jones v. General Elec. Co., 331 S.C. 351, 503 S.E.2d 173 (Ct.App. 1998), cert. denied, (May 14, 1999). The relevant issues for determining if the handbook forms a contract are whet......
  • Hurd v. Williamsburg County, No. 3614.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • March 17, 2003
    ...existence or nonexistence of evidence. Long v. Norris & Assocs., Ltd., 342 S.C. 561, 538 S.E.2d 5 (Ct.App.2000); Jones v. Gen. Elec. Co., 331 S.C. 351, 503 S.E.2d 173 (Ct.App.1998). This Court can only reverse the trial court when there is no evidence to support the ruling below. Steinke v.......
  • Sims v. Giles, No. 3291.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • January 29, 2001
    ...or non-existence of evidence. Long v. Norris & Assocs., Ltd., 342 S.C. 561, 538 S.E.2d 5 (Ct.App.2000); Jones v. General Elec. Co., 331 S.C. 351, 503 S.E.2d 173 (Ct.App. 1998). The trial court can only be reversed by this Court when there is no evidence to support the ruling below. Swinton ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
14 cases
  • Wright v. Craft, No. 4181.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • November 27, 2006
    ...for the opposing party would be reasonably possible under the facts as liberally construed in his favor." Jones v. General Electric Co., 331 S.C. 351, 356, 503 S.E.2d 173, 176 This court will reverse the trial court's ruling on a directed verdict motion only if no evidence exists to support......
  • Williams v. Riedman, No. 3127.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • February 28, 2000
    ...the evidence is conflicting or admits of more than one inference. Small I, 292 S.C. at 483, 357 S.E.2d at 454; Jones v. General Elec. Co., 331 S.C. 351, 503 S.E.2d 173 (Ct.App. 1998), cert. denied, (May 14, 1999). The relevant issues for determining if the handbook forms a contract are whet......
  • Hurd v. Williamsburg County, No. 3614.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • March 17, 2003
    ...existence or nonexistence of evidence. Long v. Norris & Assocs., Ltd., 342 S.C. 561, 538 S.E.2d 5 (Ct.App.2000); Jones v. Gen. Elec. Co., 331 S.C. 351, 503 S.E.2d 173 (Ct.App.1998). This Court can only reverse the trial court when there is no evidence to support the ruling below. Steinke v.......
  • Sims v. Giles, No. 3291.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • January 29, 2001
    ...or non-existence of evidence. Long v. Norris & Assocs., Ltd., 342 S.C. 561, 538 S.E.2d 5 (Ct.App.2000); Jones v. General Elec. Co., 331 S.C. 351, 503 S.E.2d 173 (Ct.App. 1998). The trial court can only be reversed by this Court when there is no evidence to support the ruling below. Swinton ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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