Williams v. Precision Coil, Inc.

Decision Date24 March 1995
Docket NumberNo. 22493,22493
Citation194 W.Va. 52,459 S.E.2d 329
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
Parties, 130 Lab.Cas. P 57,916, 10 IER Cases 1449 Mark WILLIAMS, Plaintiff Below, Appellant, v. PRECISION COIL, INC., Defendant Below, Appellee.

4. "A promise of job security contained in an employee handbook distributed by an employer to its employees constitutes an offer for a unilateral contract; and an employee's continuing to work, while under no obligation to do so, constitutes an acceptance and sufficient consideration to make the employer's promise binding and enforceable." Syllabus Point 5, Cook v. Heck's Inc., 176 W.Va. 368, 342 S.E.2d 453 (1986).

5. "An employee handbook may form the basis of a unilateral contract if there is a definite promise therein by the employer not to discharge covered employees except for specified reasons." Syllabus Point 6, Cook v. Heck's Inc., 176 W.Va. 368, 342 S.E.2d 453 (1986).

6. For a disclaimer to be valid, it must be sufficiently clear, conspicuous, and understandable so that employees will know that the handbook provides them with no protection and it only is intended to benefit one side of the employment relationship, i.e., the employer.

Brent E. Beveridge, Fairmont, for appellant.

C. David Morrison, John R. Merinar, Jr., Steptoe & Johnson, Clarksburg, for appellee.

CLECKLEY, Justice:

The plaintiff below and appellant herein, Mark Williams, sued the defendant below and appellee herein, Precision Coil, Inc., for, inter alia, 1 breach of an employment contract. The January 27, 1994, order of the Circuit Court of Harrison County granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant pursuant to Rule 56(c) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. On appeal, the plaintiff asserts that the defendant altered his at-will employment status and, thereby, transformed him into a contractual employee. The plaintiff contends the defendant breached his employment contract by discharging him. Upon review, we affirm the order granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant. I.


The plaintiff completed a job application form on August 4, 1990, and began working for the defendant on August 22, 1990. Although the parties dispute whether or not the defendant complied with the provisions in the employee handbook with regard to terminating an employee for "excessive absenteeism," it is clear the defendant gave the plaintiff two warnings for absenteeism in November, 1990, and another warning for absenteeism on April 10, 1991. The April, 1991, warning stated, in part, that it was a "third and final written warning whereas any future absences may be considered just cause for [the plaintiff's] termination." Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff again missed work, and by letter dated April 25, 1991, the plaintiff was informed he was terminated effective April 24, 1991, the date of his absence. The letter generally provided the plaintiff was terminated as the result of absenteeism. According to the letter, during an eight-month period, the plaintiff missed twenty-seven days of work prior to his most recent absence for which he was being terminated.

After his termination, the plaintiff filed a two-count complaint in the circuit court. The plaintiff alleged in count one that the defendant discriminated against him on the basis of handicap in violation of the West Virginia Human Rights Act, W.Va.Code, 5-11-1, et seq. The plaintiff alleged in count two that, by terminating him, the defendant breached an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Upon motion of the defendant, the circuit court struck the plaintiff's second count for not stating a viable cause of action. 2 The defendant then filed a motion for summary judgment as to the plaintiff's first count claiming discrimination of the basis of handicap.

In response, the plaintiff filed a motion to amend his complaint to include an allegation that the defendant breached the terms of an employment contract. 3 The plaintiff claimed the defendant created an employment contract with him by virtue of the job application form he completed and the provisions in the employee handbook the defendant adopted. The defendant filed a response in opposition to the plaintiff's motion to amend and, in the alternative, filed a motion for summary judgment on the amended complaint.

On September 2 and October 27, 1993, the circuit court heard arguments on all the pending motions. By order dated January 27, 1994, the circuit court found the plaintiff failed to show a prima facie case of handicap discrimination and awarded summary judgment for the defendant on this count. 4 The circuit court also permitted the plaintiff to amend his complaint to include an action for breach of an express contract of employment; however, the circuit court awarded summary judgment for the defendant on this action.

In granting summary judgment, the circuit court concluded as a matter of law that the defendant made no express contracts of employment in either its job application form or in its employee handbook. 5 In addition, the circuit court stated neither the job application form nor the employee handbook contained " 'very definite' promises of employment ... sufficient to support a cause of action under the 'implied-in-fact' contract theory," and, even if they did contain such a promise, the disclaimer in the foreword of the employee handbook prevents any statements from becoming binding upon the defendant. Thus, the circuit court determined the disclaimer "precludes the plaintiff from establishing contractual rights based upon any statements therein." (Citations omitted).



The sole issue in this appeal is whether summary judgment was appropriate. A circuit court's entry of summary judgment is reviewed de novo, see Syl. pt. 1, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W.Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994); Drewitt v. Pratt, 999 F.2d 774, 778 (4th Cir.1993); and, therefore, we apply the same standard as a circuit court. Helm v. Western Maryland Ry. Co., 838 F.2d 729, 734 (4th Cir.1988). 6

We begin, as we did in Painter, with the premise that our pronouncements regarding the standard for granting summary judgments are not an innovation in our jurisprudence but are an application of settled principles long recognized in this State. We have undertaken a long and extensive reexamination of the Painter decision and reaffirm the principles it announced. Painter was but an explication of the basic principles undergirding Rule 56 of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. Due to the importance of Rule 56 to civil litigation practice and the misunderstanding that may have been generated by the Painter decision, our holding here will be spelled out with some specificity.

Briefly stated, our holding is: "Rule 56 of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure plays an important role in litigation in this State. It is 'designed to effect a prompt disposition of controversies on their merits without resort to a lengthy trial,' " if there essentially "is no real dispute as to salient facts" or if it only involves a question of law. Painter, 192 W.Va. at 192 n. 5, 451 S.E.2d at 758 n. 5, quoting Oakes v. Monongahela Power Co., 158 W.Va. 18, 22, 207 S.E.2d 191, 194 (1974). Indeed, it is one of the few safeguards in existence that prevent frivolous lawsuits from being tried which have survived a motion to dismiss. Its principal purpose is to isolate and dispose of meritless litigation. To the extent that our prior cases implicitly have communicated a message that Rule 56 is not to be used, that message, hereby, is modified.

When a motion for summary judgment is mature for consideration and properly is documented with such clarity as to leave no room for controversy, the nonmoving party must take the initiative and by affirmative evidence demonstrate that a genuine issue of fact exists. Otherwise, Rule 56(e) empowers a circuit court to grant the pretrial motion. To be clear, there is no need for a circuit court to wait until after evidence has been received at trial when the standard we articulated in Painter has been met and summary judgment is warranted. 7 On the other hand and as suggested by Rule 56(c), this Court will reverse summary judgment if we find, after reviewing the entire record, a genuine issue of material fact exists or if the moving party is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. In cases of substantial doubt, the safer course of action is to deny the motion and to proceed to trial.

Under Rule 56(c) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper only where the moving party...

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