I have looked at enough public sector handbooks over the years to know that when creating a handbook we tend to take from other handbooks we have seen, and involve elected officials involved in the process. Handbooks are seen as a way for the government entity to state its intentions. While these intentions are honorable, they may not serve the public sector employer well from a legal standpoint.
Take the recent case of a fired police chief and patrol officer in Decherd, Tennessee. Freeze v. City of Decherd (6th Cir. 2014). The pair sued the City and won, arguing that the handbook provided a property interest in continued employment. The City clearly did not expect such an outcome, and had no idea the employee handbook would
be the predominant cause.
Terry Freeze and Earnest Colvin claimed the City fired them summarily, without written notice, any explanation, or any meaningful opportunity to respond. In Tennessee, as in most states, this would be fine because employment is at-will and either party may end the relationship at any time and for any reason. The City clearly relied on this principle when terminating Freeze and Colvin.
The court, however, looked carefully at the handbook. It found a change to the handbook language from 2000, which the Decherd Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved under a resolution. The changed language plainly stated, “Discipline shall be for cause and follow the basic concepts of due process.” One wonders if those passing the resolution had any idea what the impact would be. This is unlikely since other language in the handbook stated the department would use a progressive-discipline system only where “practicable.”
It becomes more and more important to understand what consequences handbook language can have on your organization. Remember that a handbook review is part of MSEC membership, and avoid startling outcomes like this case in Tennessee.
A poorly written handbook can increase an employer’s liability. Make sure you aren’t unknowingly creating liability by what is included or omitted from your handbook. Your MSEC membership grants you access to staff expertise, sample handbooks, and employee handbook planning guides. Take advantage of this great membership benefit!