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2011-UP-075 - Sheppard v. LPA Group

THIS OPINION HAS NO PRECEDENTIAL VALUE. IT SHOULD NOT BE CITED OR RELIED ON AS PRECEDENT IN ANY PROCEEDING EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY RULE 268(d)(2), SCACR.

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals

William V. Sheppard, Appellant,

v

The LPA Group, Inc., Respondent.


Appeal From Richland County
James R. Barber, III, Circuit Court Judge


Unpublished Opinion No.   2011-UP-075
Submitted February 1, 2011 – Filed February 23, 2011


AFFIRMED


Chalmers C. Johnson, of Tacoma, Washington, for Appellant.

Susan P. McWilliams and Jennifer S. Cluverius, both of Columbia, for Respondent.

PER CURIAM: William V. Sheppard appeals a circuit court's grant of summary judgment to The LPA Group, Inc. (LPA) in Sheppard's action for wrongful discharge.  We affirm.[1]

Under Rule 56(c) of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, "[s]ummary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue of material fact and it is clear the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law."  Hancock v. Mid-South Mgmt. Co., Inc., 381 S.C. 326, 329, 673 S.E.2d 801, 802 (2009) (citation omitted).  "In determining whether any triable issues of fact exist, the evidence and all inferences which can be reasonably drawn from the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party."  Id. at 329-30, 673 S.E.2d at 802.  

Sheppard argues the circuit court erred in granting summary judgment to LPA because a genuine issue of material fact existed whether LPA's employment handbook (the Handbook) and oral explanation for Sheppard's termination altered his at-will employment status such that LPA breached an employment contract when it fired him for cause.  We disagree.  An at-will employee can be fired "at any time, for any reason or for no reason at all.  The termination of an at-will employee normally does not give rise to cause of action for breach of contract."  Small v. Springs Indus. Inc., 300 S.C. 481, 484, 388 S.E.2d 808, 810 (1990) (citations omitted).  However, an employer's oral statement may alter an employee's at-will status if the statement is "an oral contract of definite employment."  Prescott v. Farmers Tel. Co-op., Inc.,  335 S.C. 330, 336, 516 S.E.2d 923, 926 (1999).  This oral contract requires three elements: "1) a specific offer, 2) communication of the offer to the employee, and 3) performance of job duties in reliance on the offer."  Id. (citation omitted)  Moreover, certain handbook provisions may constitute promises that alter an employee's at-will status, and these provisions may include mandatory, progressive discipline procedures and general policy statements.  Connor v. City of Forest Acres, 348 S.C. 454, 463, 560 S.E.2d 606, 611 (2002).  An employer's general policy statements are enforceable as promises if "definitive in nature, promising specific treatment in specific situations."  Hessenthaler v. Tri-County Sister Help, Inc., 365 S.C. 101, 110, 616 S.E.2d 694, 699 (2005).  If a handbook contains promissory language but the employer does not wish to alter an employee's at-will status, "the employer must insert a conspicuous disclaimer into the handbook."  Grant v. Mount Vernon Mills, Inc., 370 S.C. 138, 149-50, 634 S.E.2d 15, 21 (Ct. App. 2006) (citation omitted).  "[A] disclaimer appearing in bold, capitalized letters, in a prominent position, is conspicuous" as a matter of law.  Hessenthaler, 365 S.C. at 108, 616 S.E.2d at 697 (citation omitted).

Here, neither the oral statements nor the Handbook altered Sheppard's at-will status.  First, LPA's oral explanation for Sheppard's termination did not constitute an offer made in exchange for Sheppard's performance of his job duties.  Second, the Handbook did not contain promissory language.  Sheppard conceded the Handbook did not contain any mandatory, progressive discipline procedures, and the Handbook's general policy statements entitled "Behavior of Employees" and "Disciplinary Procedures" simply provided possible reasons for discipline.  Furthermore, the Handbook contained a provision constituting an unambiguous, conspicuous disclaimer.  That provision's language clearly denied the Handbook altered Sheppard's at-will status, and the provision was capitalized, set off with a border, and placed on the page before the Handbook's table of contents.  Moreover, the provision's title, "Notice," was fully capitalized, underlined, and bolded. 

Sheppard also argues a genuine issue of material fact exists whether LPA breached a covenant of good faith and fair dealing by firing Sheppard for cause.  We disagree.  The covenant of good faith and fair dealing does not apply to a relationship between an employer and an at-will employee.  Williams v. Riedman, 339 S.C. 251, 274, 529 S.E.2d 28, 40 (Ct. App. 2000) (citations omitted).  Accordingly, the circuit court properly granted LPA summary judgment on Sheppard's claim for wrongful discharge.

AFFIRMED.

WILLIAMS, GEATHERS, and LOCKEMY, JJ., concur.


[1] We decide this case without oral argument pursuant to Rule 215, SCACR.