Many mid-level to large companies use an attorney handbook or direct employees during the new hire onboarding process to an employee intranet site where the employer communicates its company philosophy, policies, procedures, behavioral expectations, and worker benefits. The question often raised by employees is whether the employer is legally bound to fulfill the representations made in the handbook. Typically, not so long as the employer prominently displays a disclaimer in the handbook making clear the relationship between employer and employee is strictly a noncontractual at-will relationship, meaning the company has the right to terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any reason, or for no reason whatsoever. See generally Woolley v. Hoffman-La Roche, 99 N.J. 284 (1985). However, a recent unpublished New Jersey Appellate Division decision states that depending on the wording of the handbook disclaimer, an inroad may exist for employees to argue that the handbook disclaimer does not serve to waive an employee’s right to claim that the employer violated its policies or code of conduct by failing to put a stop to the employee being harassed or bullied in the workplace. Maselli v. Valley National Bancorp., No. A-0440-16T1, Super. Ct. N.J. slip op. (Oct. 2, 2017)
Most employees in the country are hired on an “at-will” basis. This means an employee can be fired for any reason (or no reason) so long as the reason does not violate, law, public policy, or a valid contract. English v. College of Medicine & Dentistry, 73 N.J. 20, 23 (1977). Prior to 1985, a handbook was viewed as not creating either an express or implied contractual promise whether a disclaimer was placed in the handbook or not. In Woolley, supra., the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a provision contained in the employee handbook converted the plaintiff’s employment from at-will employment to for-cause, and was enforceable against the employer. 99 N.J. 284, 289. The Court looked to the reasonable expectations of the employee and found that the handbook constituted a unilateral contract, the consideration being continued employment after receiving the handbook. Id. at 295. Woolley opened the door for various contract claims regarding different provisions of employee handbooks. However, Woolley also made clear that an employer could avoid liability for the representations and promises if it placed in the handbook a “clear” and “prominent” disclaimer explaining the policies in the handbook do not constitute a contract. Id. at 285.
In Maselli, supra., the plaintiff on appeal of a motion dismissing her complaint, argued that her former employer’ s handbook disclaimer was not worded in a manner sufficient to prevent her from pursuing a breach of contract claim stemming from her employer’s repeated failure to enforce anti-harassment provisions contained within its Code of Ethics. Although the appellate court agreed with the former employer that its disclaimer was sufficient to bar breach of contract claims related to a termination of employment (i.e., security of employment), the court found the disclaimer language sufficiently ambiguous as to make the employee’s interpretation of the disclaimer plausible, that is, the disclaimer did not bar claims for failure to enforce an anti-harassment policy established by the Bank’s Code of Ethics during her employment. Id. at * 3. An ambiguity in a contract should be resolved against the party drafting the contract, and in favor of the employee’s interpretation of the disclaimer language. In Re Miller, 90 N.J. 210, 221 (1982). A lesson to be drawn from Maselli is that when an employee claims he or she has been bullied and harassed on the job by their boss, but the harassment was not motivated by a discriminatory animus or whistleblowing retaliation, the employer’s handbook, code of ethics, and/or conduct needs to be closely read to determine whether the disclaimer language contained within it provides an opening to allege in good faith a breach of contract claim.