Mannix v. County of Monroe, 02-1001.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
Citation348 F.3d 526
Docket NumberNo. 02-1001.,02-1001.
PartiesDonald MANNIX, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. COUNTY OF MONROE, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date03 November 2003

ON BRIEF: Rosemary G. Schikora, (briefed), DYKEMA GOSSETT, Detroit, Michigan, Daniel J. Stephenson, (briefed), DYKEMA GOSSETT, Ann Arbor, Michigan, for Appellant.

Leslie J. Nearpass, Gerald J. Briskin, Shannon M. Meechan (briefed), NEARPASS & ASSOCIATES, Temperance, Michigan, for Appellee.

Before: BOGGS, Chief Circuit Judge; SILER, Circuit Judge; and RICE, Chief District Judge.*


BOGGS, Chief Circuit Judge.

The County of Monroe ("County") appeals the district court's denial of its motion for judgment as a matter of law in the action for discharge without just cause brought by its former employee, Donald Mannix. Michigan state law presumes that employment is at will, Mannix's employment contract expressly provided for employment at will, and numerous County policies stated that employment could be terminated by either party without cause. However, Mannix claimed that he failed to receive, read, or understand any of these statements. Instead, because a County policy he did read set specific levels of discipline for specific infractions, Mannix argued that he had a legitimate expectation of just-cause employment. The court denied the County's motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim and for summary judgment. A jury rendered a verdict in favor of Mannix and the district court rejected the County's subsequent motion for judgment as a matter of law. We reverse for several reasons.


Mannix accepted an offer of employment as a network administrator for the County contained in an October 9, 1998 letter. This letter expressly described the position as "an `at will' non-union position." Mannix admits reading the letter and understanding all of its content except the term "at will," which was not defined in the letter. The letter recommended that Mannix contact the County's Human Resources Supervisor if he had any questions or concerns, but he did not do so. Instead, Mannix accepted the offer by signing the letter and returning it to the County.

When Mannix began work, he received a copy of the Personnel Policies of Monroe County ("Personnel Policies"), first enacted in 1977 and most recently amended in 1989. The Personnel Policies indicated that "[a]pplicants are to understand that their employment with Monroe County is not for any definite term and may be terminated at any time with or without cause and without advance notice." The Personnel Policies also provided a list of twenty-three different offenses, including gambling, wasting time, parking in the wrong spot, insubordination, and theft, and the resulting discipline ranging from verbal warnings through discharge. However, the Personnel Policies contained no explicit statement that discipline could not be imposed for other infractions. Furthermore, the Personnel Policies made clear that the disciplinary "rules and regulations may be changed by the [County] Board of Commissioners by action taken in accordance with the Board's rules of procedure. Employees will be notified of such changes as they occur." In addition to the Personnel Policies, Mannix also received and signed for a copy of the County Work Rules and Regulations, most recently amended in 1997. The work rules set out three groups of offenses of declining severity. Notably, offenses in the first group were deemed to warrant immediate dismissal, in contradiction to a three-day waiting period in the Personnel Policies. Mannix admits to reading both the Personnel Policies and the work rules.

During the course of Mannix's employment with the County, the County Board of Commissioners updated its employment policies by means of posting to an internal database. Policy 101, adopted on March 23, 1999, set the procedures for such updates and stated that "[n]o person or representative of the [County, except the County Board of Commissioners] has any authority to enter into any agreement for employment for any specific period of time, or to make any agreement contrary to the provision contained herein." Policy 423, adopted on the same day as, and pursuant to, Policy 101, was entitled "Separation from Employment" and reiterated that "[e]mployment with the [County] is not for any definite term and may be terminated at any time with or without cause and without advance notice." Policy 423 also listed specific reasons for termination, but again did not indicate that this list was exhaustive. As a County administrator later testified, both policies were posted to the database in August 1999 and "were put on the computer email system so that all employees would have access to them at any time." Mannix admits that he, as network administrator, knew about the posting of the new policies, but denies reading them.

Mannix reported to Jeffrey W. Katke, the Information Systems Director. Katke in turn reported to Charles Londo, the County's Chief Administrative Officer. While working as a network administrator, Mannix became aware of what he regarded as financial improprieties involving Katke and Londo. In particular, Mannix was concerned that a private company operated by Katke performed work for several local municipalities, and as a favor to Katke was provided with County employees to accomplish some of these tasks. On February 1, 1999, Mannix expressed his concerns about potential conflicts of interests to several County commissioners. Thereafter Mannix's relationship with Londo and Katke deteriorated. On June 25, Mannix had a private conversation with Londo in which Londo "use[d] very violent language" and "wound up telling [Mannix that] if he found out who was spreading rumors around the county that he would take them to court and sue them for everything that they had." This conversation greatly upset Mannix, who was worried not only about lawsuits but also about losing his job. The following week, Mannix began using his privileges as network administrator to monitor Londo's email correspondence with Katke, County commissioners, and others. One of the letters from Katke to Londo that Mannix obtained over the following months indicated that Katke wished to fire Mannix. Mannix printed that letter and showed it to several County commissioners, which eventually led to Londo's discovery that Mannix had been tapping his email. On January 7, 2000, in a letter signed by Katke, the County terminated Mannix.

On April 4, 2000, Mannix filed a six-count complaint against the County, Katke, and Londo in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. In it he claimed that he had been discharged wrongfully, that he had been discharged against public policy, that he could recover under a theory of promissory estoppel, that the defendants had intentionally inflicted emotional distress on him, that the defendants had defamed him, and that the defendants had violated the Michigan Whistleblower's Protection Act.1 The federal court had diversity jurisdiction because Mannix was a citizen of Ohio, all defendants were either citizens of Michigan or Michigan entities, and the amount in controversy exceeded the jurisdictional amount. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) or, in the alternative, for summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. The court granted the motion in part, dismissing the emotional distress, defamation, and promissory estoppel claims against all defendants and the discharge against public policy claim against the County.

The surviving claims were tried to a jury. At the close of Mannix's case, the court denied the defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law under Fed. R.Civ.P. 50. The jury returned a verdict for Mannix on the wrongful discharge claim and for the defendants on all other claims. While the jury declared all defendants to be liable for the wrongful discharge, it imposed damages in the amount of $80,000 on the County and no damages on Londo and Katke.2 The court reconciled these apparent inconsistencies by entering judgment for the full amount in favor of Mannix against the County and against Mannix with respect to the other defendants. On November 13, the court denied the County's renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law. Before this court now is the County's timely appeal of the denial of this motion.


The County appeals the denial of its post-verdict motion for judgment as a matter of law. "If during a trial by jury a party has been fully heard on an issue and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue, the court may determine the issue against that party and may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law against that party with respect to a claim or defense that cannot under the controlling law be maintained or defeated without a favorable finding on that issue." Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1). "In federal court diversity cases, this circuit adheres to the minority rule that state law governs the standard for granting motions for directed verdicts and judgments notwithstanding the verdict." J.C. Wyckoff & Assoc. v. Standard Fire Ins. Co., 936 F.2d 1474 1482 (6th Cir.1991) (citing Fitzgerald v. Great Cent. Ins. Co., 842 F.2d 157, 159 (6th Cir.1988), and Lewis Refrigeration Co. v. Sawyer Fruit, Vegetable & Cold Storage Co., 709 F.2d 427, 430 n. 3 (6th Cir.1983)); cf. Orth v. Emerson Elec. Co., 980 F.2d 632, 635 (10th Cir.1992) (federal law governs standard for granting of j.n.o.v., even in diversity cases); Miles v. Tenn. River Pulp & Paper Co., 862 F.2d 1525, 1527-28 (11th Cir.1989) (same); John Hancock Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Dutton, 585 F.2d 1289, 1292 (5th Cir.1978) (same). In Michigan courts, "[t]he standard of review for...

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