Lee v. Golden Triangle Planning & Development District

Decision Date18 January 2001
Docket NumberNo. 1999-CA-01849-SCT.,1999-CA-01849-SCT.
Citation797 So.2d 845
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Joseph N. Studdard, Columbus, Attorney for Appellant.

S.T. Rayburn, Paige Bruce Rayburn, Oxford, Attorneys for Appellee.


WALLER, Justice, for the Court:

¶ 1. Lisa Lee appeals from a summary judgment dismissing her complaint and action against her former employer, Golden Triangle Planning & Development District, Inc. (Golden Triangle) for wrongful termination of employment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Lee's appeal focuses on the basic issues of whether the employee handbook created a contract of employment; whether she was discharged in a retaliatory manner for exercising rights given her in the handbook; and whether Golden Triangle's conduct rose to the level of the intentional infliction of emotional distress. Because Lee failed to create a genuine issue of material fact on the essential elements of her claims, we affirm the circuit court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Golden Triangle.


¶ 2. Lee was hired by Golden Triangle as a program specialist in its child care program. At the time she was employed, Lee received a copy of Golden Triangle's employee handbook and signed a statement acknowledging that she had read and understood the handbook. The handbook contained a disclaimer negating the existence of any contract of employment. There was no other agreement or understanding, either written or oral, between Golden Triangle and Lee concerning her employment, and Lee does not claim that she was an employee for a definite term. Lee was subsequently promoted to the position of Child Care Program Director, a position she held until she was terminated.

¶ 3. Annual employee performance evaluations were given, and the final evaluation preceding Lee's termination characterized her job performance as "poor." Specifically, the evaluation cited Lee's failure to act responsibly and adequately supervise her staff which resulted in child care files lacking the required documentation, a situation potentially resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of dollars in allowed costs, and which, at best, demonstrated a total disregard for the basic standards of accountability and good business practices. As a result, Lee was demoted from Child Care Program Director to Child Care Specialist. Because Lee declined the new position, Golden Triangle issued a formal notification of termination to Lee.

¶ 4. Following procedures outlined in the employee handbook, Lee filed a grievance, and a hearing was held before the Grievance Committee. Testimony from both Golden Triangle and Lee, who was represented by counsel, was given. Subsequently, the Grievance Committee notified Lee by letter that the termination was upheld. Lee then filed suit in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court alleging breach of employment contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress.


¶ 5. This Court conducts de novo review of orders granting or denying summary judgment and looks at all the evidentiary matters before it—admissions in pleadings, answers to interrogatories, depositions, affidavits, etc. Aetna Cas. & Surety Co. v. Berry, 669 So.2d 56, 70 (Miss.1996). This Court's review is governed by the same standard used by the circuit court under Rule 56(c) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. Cothern v. Vickers, Inc., 759 So.2d 1241, 1245 (Miss.2000); Brown v. Credit Ctr., Inc., 444 So.2d 358, 362 (Miss.1983). The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion has been made. Aetna, 669 So.2d at 70. If there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, summary judgment should be granted in the moving party's favor. Cothern, 759 So.2d at 1245; Brown, 444 So.2d at 362. ¶ 6. The burden of demonstrating that no genuine issue of material fact exists is on the moving party. Id. If there is doubt as to whether or not a fact issue exists, it should be resolved in favor of the non-moving party. That is, it is better to err on the side of denying a motion for summary judgment if a doubt exists as to whether a genuine issue of fact exists. Aetna, 669 So.2d at 70 (citing Ratliff v. Ratliff, 500 So.2d 981 (Miss.1986)).



Creation of Employment Contract

¶ 7. The employee handbook at issue failed to create a contract of employment because it contained a valid disclaimer: "This handbook and the presentation thereof is not to be considered an actual or implied contract between the District and any employee." Lee claims that this language was insufficient to preserve the at-will status of her employment, arguing that a disclaimer must expressly state that the employer can "terminate its employees with or without cause," in order to retain the at-will status.

¶ 8. A similar disclaimer was found sufficient to preserve the at-will status of employment where the following language was used, "This handbook is not a contract of employment, either express or implied; confers no property interest in one's job...." McDaniel v. Mississippi Baptist Med. Ctr., 869 F.Supp. 445, 452 (S.D.Miss. 1994). Since the language expressly preserved the at-will nature of the plaintiff's employment relationship and preserved the right of the hospital to terminate its employees with or without cause, nothing in the handbook gave the plaintiff a right to be disciplined or terminated in accordance with the policies expressed therein. Id. at 453.

¶ 9. In another similar case, this Court held, "An employee handbook cannot be considered a contract between the employer and the employee where the handbook explicitly states that the employee can be terminated at will." Hartle v. Packard Elec., 626 So.2d 106, 109 (Miss.1993). In Hartle, the last paragraph of the handbook contained the following language: "The policies and procedures in [this] handbook do not constitute a legal contract...." Id.

¶ 10. In an attempt to distinguish her case, Lee argues that Bobbitt v. Orchard, Ltd., 603 So.2d 356 (Miss.1992), should apply. In Bobbitt we held that the employer must strictly adhere to the terms set forth in the handbook. Id. at 357. However, there was no disclaimer preserving the at-will status of employment. Id. Absent a disclaimer to the contrary, the detailed procedures placed in the handbook created a contract of employment. Id. at 361.

¶ 11. Nowhere in the Bobbitt decision did the Court state that an employer must use specific language in a disclaimer to preserve the at-will nature of employment. Where there is "something" in the employee handbook disclaiming a contract of employment, the rule developed in Bobbitt does not apply. Id. at 453. As correctly noted recently by the Court of Appeals, "[t]he supreme court was reaffirming in Bobbitt the proposition that disclaimers in employees' manuals having their purpose of preserving the employment at-will relationship cannot be ignored." McCrory v. Wal Mart Stores, Inc., 755 So.2d 1141, 1144-45 (Miss.Ct.App.1999).

¶ 12. We find that Golden Triangle's handbook failed to create a contract of employment.

Violation of the Employee Handbook

¶ 13. Notwithstanding the valid disclaimer, Lee claims that her termination was in violation of the employee handbook. Lee's argument centers on Bobbitt, where the Court held the employer was bound to follow rules it created in the employee manual:

When an employer publishes and disseminates to its employees a manual setting forth the proceedings which will be followed in event of an employee's infraction of rules, and there is nothing in the employment contract to the contrary, then the employer will be required to follow its own manual in disciplining or discharging employees for infractions or misconduct specifically covered by the manual.

603 So.2d at 357.

¶ 14. Lee contends that the handbook created by Golden Triangle contained various provisions which apply to her case. In the formal termination letter sent to Lee, the reasons given for her termination related to violations listed in the handbook. Specifically, the letter stated that Lee had violated Section VIII, Subsections (A)(1) and (A)(9), which relate to incompetence and unlawful conduct.1

¶ 15. Lee claims that during the course of her employment, she never violated any of the listed reasons resulting in "just cause" discipline and that Golden Triangle failed to follow the discipline ladder set forth in the employee handbook, Section VIII, Subsection B.2

¶ 16. Lee argues that because the handbook listed reasons for "just cause" termination, coupled with procedures to be generally followed, Golden Triangle should be strictly held to follow their provisions and that its failure to do so violated the handbook. It should be noted that the pertinent section in the handbook that Lee is referring to simply states, "The following steps will generally be followed in disciplinary matters."

¶ 17. In Hartle, the employee handbook contained certain reasons that may result in discharge. Hartle, 626 So.2d at 110. In referring to a Sixth Circuit opinion, this Court agreed that the listing of causes that "may result in termination" failed to create in the plaintiff any reasonable basis that they were under a "for cause" contract. Id. (citing Reid v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 790 F.2d 453 (6th Cir.1986)).

¶ 18. Golden Triangle followed the procedures outlined in the employee handbook. The record clearly reflects, and Lee does not dispute, that a hearing was actually afforded her. Not only was Lee represented by counsel as allowed in the handbook, but she also raised the issue behind her termination. In Lee's deposition of A.D. Johnson, a member of the panel that chaired her hearing, the...

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