Nelson v. CCPRC, No. 3882.

CourtCourt of Appeals of South Carolina
Writing for the CourtANDERSON, J.
Citation605 S.E.2d 744,362 S.C. 1
PartiesRaymond P. NELSON, Appellant, v. CHARLESTON COUNTY PARKS & RECREATION COMMISSION, Respondent.
Decision Date25 October 2004
Docket NumberNo. 3882.

362 S.C. 1
605 S.E.2d 744

Raymond P. NELSON, Appellant,
v.
CHARLESTON COUNTY PARKS & RECREATION COMMISSION, Respondent

No. 3882.

Court of Appeals of South Carolina.

Heard October 13, 2004.

Decided October 25, 2004.

Rehearing Denied December 16, 2004.


362 S.C. 3
Chalmers Carey Johnson, of Charleston, for Appellant

Reginald W. Belcher, of Columbia, for Respondent.

ANDERSON, J.:

Raymond P. Nelson (Nelson) appeals the circuit court's order granting summary judgment to Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission (CCPRC) on Nelson's action for breach of employment contract. We affirm.

FACTUAL/PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

CCPRC hired Nelson as a Maintenance Specialist in May 1996, as an at-will employee, and terminated him on February 22, 2001, following a nearly one-month probationary period for substandard performance. For the last two years of Nelson's employment with CCPRC, he worked as the James Island County Maintenance Crew Chief. The position required him to maintain James Island County Park's buildings, water park, campground, utilities, and miscellaneous other structures. The position required, among other things, moderately heavy manual work, technical skills, supervisory knowledge, and the ability to act independently on the job site.

CCPRC terminated Nelson's employment on or about February 22, 2001, because his job performance progressively deteriorated for at least the last eight months of his employment, despite CCPRC's continuing efforts to encourage and

362 S.C. 4
prompt him to improve his poor and substandard performance. CCPRC, through Nelson's direct supervisor and two of CCPRC's long-tenured managers, repeatedly attempted to correct Nelson's excessive and unacceptable performance problems by giving him several oral and written reprimands, counselings, and warnings beginning in July of 2000

Nelson failed to show improvement in any of the areas recommended for corrective action over the next six months. Effective February 1, 2001 until July 31, 2001, CCPRC placed Nelson on six months probation, expressly setting forth the improvements expected from him during that time period, including providing his direct supervisor with a list of goals and objectives by February 15, 2001. Nelson interpreted the probationary status as creating a six-month employment contract, though no particular document, oral statement, or other evidence supported his position.

Nelson failed to prepare the list of goals. Furthermore, his poor and inadequate planning resulted in his crew abandoning one work project on February 8, 2001, and delaying two others. On February 22, 2001, Nelson's direct supervisor and the two managers agreed to terminate Nelson's employment for "failure to comply with requirements while on probationary status ... failure to perform work properly or follow work instruction."

Nelson filed a cause of action for wrongful termination under an employment contract on October 31, 2001 against CCPRC, alleging CCPRC altered his employment at-will status when it placed him on probation for his progressively poor job performance. The circuit court granted summary judgment to CCPRC and dismissed the case with prejudice.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

When reviewing the grant of a summary judgment motion, the appellate court applies the same standard which governs the trial court under Rule 56(c) of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure: summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fleming v. Rose, 350 S.C. 488, 494, 567 S.E.2d 857, 860 (2002); Ferguson v. Charleston Lincoln Mercury, Inc., 349 S.C. 558, 564 S.E.2d 94 (2002). In determining whether any triable issue of fact

362 S.C. 5
exists, the evidence and all inferences which can reasonably be drawn therefrom must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Faile v. South Carolina Dep't of Juvenile Justice, 350 S.C. 315, 324, 566 S.E.2d 536, 539 (2002); McNair v. Rainsford, 330 S.C. 332, 499 S.E.2d 488 (Ct.App.1998). If triable issues exist, those issues must go to the jury. Young v. South Carolina Dep't of Corr., 333 S.C. 714, 718, 511 S.E.2d 413, 415 (Ct.App.1999)

Summary judgment is not appropriate where further inquiry into the facts of the case is desirable to clarify the application of the law. Vermeer Carolina's, Inc. v. Wood/Chuck Chipper Corp., 336 S.C. 53, 59, 518 S.E.2d 301, 305 (Ct.App.1999). All ambiguities, conclusions, and inferences arising from the evidence must be construed most strongly against the moving party. Bayle v. South Carolina Dep't of Transp., 344 S.C. 115, 120, 542 S.E.2d 736, 738 (Ct.App.2001). Even when there is no dispute as to evidentiary facts, but only as to the conclusions or inferences to be drawn from them, summary judgment should be denied. See Hall v. Fedor, 349 S.C. 169, 173-74, 561 S.E.2d 654, 656 (Ct.App.2002). Moreover, summary judgment is a drastic remedy which should be cautiously invoked so no person will be improperly deprived of a trial of the disputed factual issues. Lanham v. Blue Cross and Blue Shield, 349 S.C. 356, 363, 563 S.E.2d 331, 336 (2002); Trivelas v. South Carolina Dep't of Transp., 348 S.C. 125, 558 S.E.2d 271 (Ct.App.2001).

LAW/ ANALYSIS

I. CCPRC's Actions in Putting Nelson on Probation

Nelson maintains the circuit court erred in granting summary judgment because, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Nelson as the nonmoving party, material issues of genuine fact exist concerning whether Nelson's probationary period altered his at-will employment status by creating an employment contract between the parties. We disagree.

South Carolina recognizes the doctrine of employment at-will. See Prescott v. Farmers Tel. Coop., Inc., 335 S.C. 330, 516 S.E.2d 923 (1999). This doctrine provides that a contract for permanent employment is terminable at the pleasure of either party when unsupported by any consideration

362 S.C. 6
other than the employer's duty to provide compensation in exchange for the employee's duty to perform a service or obligation. See id. "At-will employment is generally terminable by either party at any time, for any reason or no reason at all." Id. at 334, 516 S.E.2d at 925.

South Carolina courts have carved out exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine. See Small v. Springs Indus., Inc., 300 S.C. 481, 388 S.E.2d 808 (1990) (Small II); Davis v. Orangeburg-Calhoun Law Enforcement Comm'n, 344 S.C. 240, 542 S.E.2d 755 (Ct.App.2001). First, an employee has recourse against an employer for termination in violation of public policy. Small II, 300 S.C. at 484, 388 S.E.2d at 810; Ludwick v. This Minute of Carolina, Inc., 287 S.C. 219, 337 S.E.2d 213 (1985). Second, an at-will employee may not be terminated for exercising constitutional rights. Prescott, 335 S.C. at 335 n. 3, 516 S.E.2d at 925 n. 3; Moshtaghi v. The Citadel, 314 S.C. 316, 443 S.E.2d 915 (Ct.App.1994). Finally, an employee has a cause of action against an employer who contractually alters the at-will relationship and terminates the employee in violation of the contract. Davis, 344 S.C. at 246-47, 542 S.E.2d at 758. An employer and employee may contractually alter an at-will employment relationship, and as a result, limit the ability of either party to terminate the employment relationship without incurring liability. See Small v....

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35 practice notes
  • Miller v. Blumenthal Mills, Inc., No. 4013.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
    • July 5, 2005
    ...conclusions or inferences to be drawn from them, summary judgment should be denied. Nelson v. Charleston County Parks & Recreation Comm'n, 362 S.C. 1, 605 S.E.2d 744 (Ct.App.2004). However, when plain, palpable, and indisputable facts exist on which reasonable minds cannot differ, summary j......
  • Bennett v. Investors Title Ins. Co., No. 4152.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • September 25, 2006
    ...conclusions or inferences to be drawn from them, summary judgment should be denied. Nelson v. Charleston County Parks & Recreation Comm'n, 362 S.C. 1, 5, 605 S.E.2d 744, 746 (Ct.App.2004). However, when plain, palpable, and indisputable facts exist on which reasonable minds cannot differ, s......
  • Moore v. Weinberg, No. 4209.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • February 20, 2007
    ...judgment should be denied. Baugus v. Wessinger, 303 S.C. 412, 401 S.E.2d 169 (1991); Nelson v. Charleston County Parks & Recreation Comm'n, 362 S.C. 1, 605 S.E.2d 744 (Ct.App.2004). When reasonable minds cannot differ on plain, palpable, and indisputable facts, summary judgment should be gr......
  • Singleton v. Sherer, No. 4346.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • February 25, 2008
    ...Adv. Sh. No. 1 at 11); Baugus v. Wessinger, 303 S.C. 412, 401 S.E.2d 169 (1991); Nelson v. Charleston County Parks & Recreation Comm'n, 362 S.C. 1, 605 S.E.2d 744 (Ct.App. 2004). When reasonable minds cannot differ on plain, palpable, and indisputable facts, summary judgment should be grant......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
35 cases
  • Miller v. Blumenthal Mills, Inc., No. 4013.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
    • July 5, 2005
    ...conclusions or inferences to be drawn from them, summary judgment should be denied. Nelson v. Charleston County Parks & Recreation Comm'n, 362 S.C. 1, 605 S.E.2d 744 (Ct.App.2004). However, when plain, palpable, and indisputable facts exist on which reasonable minds cannot differ, summary j......
  • Bennett v. Investors Title Ins. Co., No. 4152.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • September 25, 2006
    ...conclusions or inferences to be drawn from them, summary judgment should be denied. Nelson v. Charleston County Parks & Recreation Comm'n, 362 S.C. 1, 5, 605 S.E.2d 744, 746 (Ct.App.2004). However, when plain, palpable, and indisputable facts exist on which reasonable minds cannot differ, s......
  • Moore v. Weinberg, No. 4209.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • February 20, 2007
    ...judgment should be denied. Baugus v. Wessinger, 303 S.C. 412, 401 S.E.2d 169 (1991); Nelson v. Charleston County Parks & Recreation Comm'n, 362 S.C. 1, 605 S.E.2d 744 (Ct.App.2004). When reasonable minds cannot differ on plain, palpable, and indisputable facts, summary judgment should be gr......
  • Singleton v. Sherer, No. 4346.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • February 25, 2008
    ...Adv. Sh. No. 1 at 11); Baugus v. Wessinger, 303 S.C. 412, 401 S.E.2d 169 (1991); Nelson v. Charleston County Parks & Recreation Comm'n, 362 S.C. 1, 605 S.E.2d 744 (Ct.App. 2004). When reasonable minds cannot differ on plain, palpable, and indisputable facts, summary judgment should be grant......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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