Employment Law Journal

Employer Has No Handbook Liability to Treat Employee Fairly

By Bruce D. Voss

A company handbook or manual promising that an employer will treat employees “fairly” does not by itself create an enforceable contract to support a wrongful termination claim, a Hawaii federal judge has ruled.

The former employee in Clemmons v. HMSA claimed that his employer had distributed written statements “guaranteeing” that “employees would be treated fairly with regard to sexual harassment, complaints, retaliation, wages and discipline.” The employee contended that under Hawaii law, those statements created an enforceable contract the employer had breached by not properly investigating his complaints and ultimately terminating him.

Federal Judge Susan Oki Mollway rejected the claim. Judge Mollway noted that prior cases creating so-called handbook liability for employers concerned “promises of job security, not with a general promise to be fair.” The former employee admitted he was an at-will employee, and a supposed “implied promise of fair treatment” did not change that at-will status.

Judge Mollway also found that the employee was required to show “specific” and “substantial” evidence that the employer’s reasons for terminating him were a pretext for discrimination. Because the employee had many allegations but little or no actual evidence, the Court dismissed all of his discrimination and retaliation claims.

The Clemmons case shows the path of many wrongful termination lawsuits. An unhappy employee may begin a lawsuit with a big basket of allegations and legal claims. But when the employer shows a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the termination and files a motion to dismiss the claims, the employee must come forward with specific, credible, admissible evidence to support the claims. If the employee cannot produce the evidence, the claims must be dismissed.

Back to List