In Florida, the general rule for employment is that, where no employment contract exists, the employment is “at will.” This normally means an employer can terminate any employee, at any time, and for any reason (or none at all). In one of my recent cases, an employee was discharged from employment, but the employer did not pay out “comp-time” and PTO the employee had accumulated. The only reference to these benefits was the Employer’s Employee Handbook. This raised the question of whether the Employee Handbook was an employment contract?
Some Florida cases have held that an employee handbook cannot be considered a contractual agreement. Muller v. Stromberg Carlson Corp., 427 So. 2d 266 (Fla. 2nd DCA 1983). But the Muller case was brought under theories of contract law and did not consider some equitable claims an employee might make, such as unjust enrichment or promissory estoppel. In my opinion, suing an employer based purely on contract law in Florida is an uphill battle. There are better arguments which can be made in equity, which essentially presents a case about “fairness.” In cases I litigate, where employment handbook language comes into play, I always include such counts in the lawsuit in an attempt to avoid.
On the other hand, if the handbook contains “contractual language,” then an employee may argue to enforce the terms contained in the handbook in a lawsuit against the employer. In another case, Falls v. Lawnwood Medical Center, 427 So. 2d 361 (Fla. 4th DCA 1983) the appellate court held that personnel policies were incorporated into an employment contract and, therefore, created an issue of fact for a trial court to examine. Stated differently, the wording of an employee handbook may give rise to certain expectations of conduct or to benefit entitlement, which form the basis of a “contract” between the employee and the employer. There are a multitude of Federal and Florida Laws on employee benefits that no contract can alter, regardless of whether they are memorialized in a handbook or not. But some benefits, like the accumulation of “comp time” or a bank of paid time off, might be found to be contractually promised upon acceptance of employment under the terms of an employee handbook.
As a word of caution, every case turns on its own facts. In Florida, it is difficult to generalize about what parts of a handbook or policies become “contractual” to the point where they override Florida’s widely known “at will” employment status or where benefits discussed in the handbook become employee entitlements. Therefore, it is important to consult with a qualified Florida attorney to determine if a case can be made that a person was actually working under a “contract” instead of purely “at will.” Similarly, if you have questions about whether benefits noted in an employee handbook are enforceable as if they were part of an employment contract, please feel free to contact the attorneys at Dickstein Law and Appel Law Group for a free consultation. Give us a call or email us. We’re always happy to answer your employment law questions.