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Clear Employee Handbook Disclaimers Can Put a Quick End To Costly Litigation

January 22, 2015

Wegmans Food Markets, Inc., and Wegmans Bridgewater employed Loretta Darling as a part-time at-will employee. Between January and March 2011, she lived with her mother, who was receiving in-home health and hospice care. Darling acted as the caregiver for her mother, personally administering oral and topical narcotic pain medication as part of her care regimen. Her mother passed away in March 2011. She believed Wegmans was aware of her personal situation during this time.

Darling applied for a full-time position at Wegmans in April 2011. The company offered her the job, contingent on her passing a drug test. She tested positive for opiate substances, however, and was disqualified. She told Wegmans that she only tested positive because she handled pain medication for her mother. She asked the care providers of her mother to confirm her claim, but an independent medical inquiry by Wegmans failed to support her argument.

In addition to disqualifying her from this full-time position, Wegmans barred Darling from applying for any other full-time positions for at least 6 months. Further, to remain employed at the company, she had to acknowledge the positive drug test results in writing and complete an employee assistance program (EAP). She refused to sign the documents.

Darling attended a meeting with her manager in May 2011 but asked to reschedule the meeting until her employee advocate could appear. Her manager refused to postpone the meeting and again asked her to sign the documents. She refused, and Wegmans terminated her employment.

Darling then filed a lawsuit against Wegmans asserting that the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and wrongfully terminated her employment. Wegmans asked the court to dismiss her case before the completion of discovery (the pretrial exchange of evidence).

District court decision

First, the court quickly dispatched the ADA claim. Wegmans argued that she failed to exhaust her administrative remedies, a necessary prerequisite to filing suit under the ADA in court. Darling did not dispute this point, and the court agreed with Wegmans, granting summary judgment (pretrial dismissal) on the ADA claim.

The court then turned its attention to the wrongful termination claim. In New Jersey, unless there is an express employment contract, employees are generally presumed to be employed "at will," meaning they can be terminated for good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all.

An exception to the employment-at-will doctrine may occur when an implied contract is created by representations in an employment manual or handbook. An employer can prevent a handbook from becoming an implied contract by including a "clear and prominent" disclaimer stating that the handbook does not constitute a contract.

Darling claimed that she was wrongfully terminated in violation of the handbook, specifically because she was not afforded an employee advocate during the May 2011 meeting. However, the handbook does not contain any provision mandating the presence of an employee advocate at a disciplinary meeting.

More important, the handbook clearly provides that it is not a contract, it does not alter employee "at-will" status, and employment may be terminated without notice at any time for any reason by either party. The handbook also does not provide for any particular disciplinary steps or progressive discipline policies. Accordingly, the court found that it was not an employment contract and could not support the claims by Darling.

In a last-ditch effort to save her case, Darling argued that summary judgment was premature because no discovery had been conducted. The court found that her argument was procedurally deficient because she did not submit an appropriate affidavit. In any event, however, the clear disclaimer in the handbook easily warranted summary judgment in this case.

Bottom line

Employment handbooks and manuals are a necessity in the workplace. If you do not wish to alter at-will employee status, it is vitally important that your handbook contain a clear and prominent disclaimer stating as much. Wegmans used such a disclaimer to defeat a lawsuit before it incurred the expense of discovery and before a potentially sympathetic plaintiff could take her case to a jury. This case serves as a reminder of the importance of having well-crafted, thorough employment handbooks and manuals.

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