In a recent court proceeding, the Suffolk Superior Court refused to dismiss an employee’s wrongful discharge claim. The employee claimed that he was wrongfully discharged in violation of the company’s progressive discipline policy, which was clearly set forth in the company’s employee handbook. However, the company claimed that it was not bound by the progressive discipline system, because the employee manual contained a separate section with a disclaimer essentially stating that the employee had no rights at all and that the manual was not binding on the company.
According to the court, the issue of whether the employer was obligated to abide by the progressive discipline policy turns on whether the employee reasonably relied on the discipline provision set forth in the employee handbook. The court noted that the disclaimer section did not set forth particular circumstances or conditions under which the company could disregard the discipline policy, but rather, allowed the company unbounded discretion in all decision-making. The court went on to suggest that a jury could find that the manual was deceptive or even fraudulent.
Finally, the court noted that the employee was asked to sign a document acknowledging his receipt of the company’s handbook. Thus, it is probable that the employee understood the policies in the handbook to be binding on both the company and himself. Therefore, it is quite possible that a jury would ultimately conclude that the employee was acting reasonably in relying on the provisions contained therein.