Can I sue for my employer’s violation of policies or procedures outlined in a policy manual or handbook?

An employment policy manual or handbook usually does not offer much help for the employee. Typically, the employer includes in the policy manual or handbook a disclaimer conspicuously located among the early passages that declares the policies or procedures of the employer as mere guidelines and are not to be regarded as contractual obligations of any sort.

The disclaimer also usually includes a reservation of the right to amend, suspend, abandon, or terminate any policy or procedure at any time, with or without notice. A well-written disclaimer also generally reconfirms in express terms the “at-will” nature of the employer’s relationship with employees.

There are circumstances under which an employment policy manual or handbook could provide the basis for a claim against an employer. An employee, however, would have to show that there is no disclaimer and that the employer’s agreement or commitment to be bound by the policies or procedures communicated to its employee(s) was supported by some form of consideration or reciprocal promise made by the employee(s) at the same time the policy manual or handbook was published or circulated by the employer.

In other cases, it is possible that a promise made by an employer to an employee to abide by the terms expressed in an employment policy manual or handbook can be enforceable for other reasons under the theory of promissory estoppel, even where a court would not enforce the manual or handbook against the employer as a binding contractual obligation.

As each case in this area depends on the facts and circumstances, contact us if you would like to set up an appointment to discuss your specific situation.

Is my employer ever bound by promises made to me?

Certainly. But the promises must be enforceable in a court of law in order for you to force the employer to comply with them.

A promise made in the employment setting is enforceable if:

  • It is supported by the terms of an express contract (e.g., a written employment agreement or an offer letter spelling out the terms and conditions of employment with enough specificity that the court would not have to guess about what the employer agreed to do)

  • The fact the promise was made can be proved by evidence other than a written commitment (e.g., how the employer and employee dealt with each other during the course of the employment relationship or how similar circumstances involving similar classes of employees have been handled)

  • The employer somehow would receive a windfall or other form of “unjust enrichment” if the promises were not enforced (e.g., the employer would keep all of the commissions payable on a sale for itself instead of distributing them)

  • The promise was made by circumstances under which it would be unjust or inequitable for the employer to avoid having to live up to that promise

This fourth area of the law is called “promissory estoppel.” An employer can be bound by a promise made to an employee where the promise was expressed in clear or specific terms and was made under circumstances where the employer reasonably could expect that the employee would rely on it, the employee in fact did rely on it in changing his or her position in some fashion (e.g., doing something he or she was not required to do or refraining from doing something he or she otherwise might have done), and the employee suffered some adverse consequence, loss, or damages as a result of the employer’s failure to live up to the promise made.

The theory of promissory estoppel can be used in a wide variety of circumstances where the “at-will” employment doctrine otherwise would condone an employer’s unilateral decision to modify the terms and conditions of employment or terminate the employment relationship with or without cause and with or without notice.

An example might be where an employer and a job applicant specifically discuss the type of employment benefits that will be offered or the fact that no non-compete agreement will be required of the employee if the job is accepted and the employer later changes or eliminates some employment benefit or tries to force its employee to sign a covenant against competition. The law may protect the employee under these circumstances.

As each case in this area depends on individual facts and circumstances, contact us if you would like to set up an appointment to discuss your specific situation and see whether the theory of promissory estoppel might help you in dealing with a problem you have with your employee.