Rains v. Becton, Dickinson and Co.

Decision Date28 October 1994
Docket NumberNo. S-93-173,S-93-173
Parties, 9 IER Cases 1806 Janet RAINS, Appellant and Cross-Appellee, v. BECTON, DICKINSON AND COMPANY, Appellee and Cross-Appellant.
CourtNebraska Supreme Court

Syllabus by the Court

1. Employment Contracts. Whether a contract of employment exists is a question of law.

2. Contracts. A contract must be construed as a whole and, if possible, effect given to every part thereof.

3. Contracts. The terms of a contract are to be accorded their plain and ordinary meaning as ordinary, average, or reasonable persons would understand them.

4. Contracts: Intent. A contract which is written in clear and unambiguous language is not subject to interpretation or construction; rather, the intent of the parties must be determined from the contents of the contract, and the contract must be enforced according to its terms.

5. Contracts. Whether a contract is ambiguous is a question of law.

6. Contracts. The construction of a contract is a question of law.

7. Appeal and Error. In connection with a question of law, an appellate court has an obligation to reach an independent conclusion irrespective of the determination made by any inferior court.

Richard K. Watts, of Mills, Papik & Watts, Osceola, for appellant.

Robert F. Rossiter, Jr., of Fraser, Stryker, Vaughn, Meusey, Olson, Boyer & Bloch, P.C., Omaha, for appellee.


CAPORALE, Justice.

In this wrongful termination of employment case, the plaintiff-appellant employee, Janet Rains, asserts, in summary, that the trial court erred in ruling in favor of the defendant-appellee employer, Becton, Dickinson and Company. By way of cross-appeal, the company avers that the district court erred in finding that the arrangement between Rains and the company was anything other than an employment at will. On our own motion, we removed the appeal from the Nebraska Court of Appeals to this tribunal in order to regulate the caseloads of the two courts. We now affirm.

Rains was hired on February 16, 1976, and worked at the company's Columbus, Nebraska, plant until her services were terminated on August 16, 1990, for having literally lain down on the job.

Rains testified that on the morning in question, August 11, she felt ill and, after doing some initial setup of her work area, decided that if she could rest she could finish her shift. She therefore climbed into a loft area to lie down, telling no one where she was going. After 2 to 10 minutes, she was discovered by her supervisor, whom she had not otherwise seen that day. Although the plant had no infirmary, sick employees usually reported to their supervisors and then rested in the restrooms or on benches in the break room.

In early 1986, the company had distributed to all employees of the plant a handbook entitled "Your Company and You." As required by the company, Rains signed an acknowledgment that she had received the handbook, read it, and understood its terms.

The handbook contains information about the company, as well as procedures, guidelines, and policies. A section entitled "Disciplinary Action and Performance Documentation" sets forth a three-step system of progressive discipline for violations of company rules and regulations, as follows:

Regulations for acceptable conduct of employees are necessary for the orderly operation of any business, and for the benefit and protection of the rights and safety of its employees. From time to time, it becomes necessary to enforce the compliance of these rules and regulations.

The employee is expected to maintain proper discipline in personal standards of conduct at all times.

To ensure uniformity of rule enforcement, the following guidelines of action will generally be followed for disciplinary problems:

1. First offense--verbal warning. Explanation and verbal counseling by the supervisor. Verbal warnings will be documented by the Supervisor.

2. Second offense--written warning. A written warning records the infraction, a statement of the expected corrective action, and a statement of the consequences of any future or repeated violations. Written warnings will be prepared in triplicate with a copy to the employee, a copy to the Supervisor, and the original to the Human Resources Department where a record of all offenses will be maintained.

3. Third offense--suspension or discharge.

The above guidelines will apply in most situations; however, certain rule infractions are so serious that a written warning or even discharge must be applied. If the first offense warrants a written warning and there is a repeated infraction of the same rule within a 6-month period, the next action may be discharge. In such applications of management action, all facts and circumstances pertinent to the offense will be considered.

The introductory statement to the subsequent section, "Rules and Regulations," provides that violations "of the following rules and regulations shall be grounds for management action." Of the 28 rules listed, 3 specifically provide that a violation will result in discharge. These three rules deal with bringing firearms to work; bringing, using, distributing, or being under the influence of intoxicants or narcotics at the workplace; and theft. Three other rules, relating to the falsification of timecards, immoral conduct, and insubordination, provide that a violation may result in discharge. Neither the rule at issue nor any of the remaining rules state that a violation may or will result in discharge. This section also provides that the rules and regulations listed "are not all inclusive. Should it be necessary to establish additional rules or policies, these will be communicated to employees."

The rule at issue reads: "LEAVING PLANT OR WORKPLACE--Permission must be obtained from your supervisor to leave the plant at any time other than lunch period or scheduled quitting time. You are not allowed to leave your assigned place of work without proper authorization, personal needs excepted."

The company's human resources director testified that after investigation, Rains' violation was considered serious enough to warrant discharge because she

left her designated workplace; she went to a concealed area; she had no intention of being discovered; we believe she laid down; and we believe she went to sleep; and we believe she would have been there longer than 10 or 15 minutes if [her supervisor] had not woke her up.

Her actions were considered a blatant and conscious attempt to conceal herself.

We note that the company cross-appeals on the basis that the trial court found the handbook constituted a contract, but it is not at all clear that such was the case. It is true that in one portion of its written findings of fact and conclusions of law, the trial court recited that "the...

To continue reading

Request your trial
15 cases
  • Coppi v. West American Ins. Co.
    • United States
    • Nebraska Supreme Court
    • December 9, 1994
    ...obligation to reach an independent conclusion irrespective of the determination made by any inferior court. Rains v. Becton, Dickinson & Co., 246 Neb. 746, 523 N.W.2d 506 (1994). IV. With the foregoing matters in mind, we direct our attention to each of the assignments of error in turn. 1. ......
  • Rodgers v. Data Transmission Network, CASE NO. 8:10CV46
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Nebraska
    • April 10, 2012
    ...discretion to discipline its employees as it sees fit or to determine what conduct warrants discharge. See Rains v. Becton, Dickinson and Co., 523 N.W.2d 506, 510 (Neb. 1994). Rodgers does not dispute that DTN's 1993 Handbook established an at-will employment relationship between her and DT......
  • Critel v. Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society Center, 8:96CV497 (D. Neb. 1997), 8:96CV497.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Nebraska
    • October 1, 1997
    ...OF EMPLOYMENT CONTRACT Under Nebraska law, the existence of an employment contract is a question of law. Rains v. Becton, Dickinson & Co., 246 Neb. 746, 750, 523 N.W.2d 506, 509 (1994). "In an action for breach of contract of employment, the burden of proving the existence of a contract and......
  • Meyer v. Broekemeier
    • United States
    • Nebraska Court of Appeals
    • September 9, 2003
    ...accorded their plain and ordinary meaning as ordinary, average, or reasonable persons would understand them. Rains v. Becton, Dickinson & Co., 246 Neb. 746, 523 N.W.2d 506 (1994). A written contract expressed in unambiguous language is not subject to rules of construction, and the intention......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT