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AMI 3107 Issues—Wrongful termination—Handbook exception to at-will doctrine

Arkansas Supreme Court Committee On Jury Instructions-Civil

Ark. Model Jury Instr., Civil AMI 3107
Arkansas Model Jury Instructions-Civil
December 2023 Update
Arkansas Supreme Court Committee On Jury Instructions-Civil
Chapter 31. Employment
AMI 3107 Issues—Wrongful termination—Handbook exception to at-will doctrine
(Plaintiff) claims damages from (defendant) for wrongful termination of [his][her] employment. An employer may [discharge] [or] [lay off] an employee with or without cause without incurring liability unless the employer expressly agrees otherwise. In order to recover on the claim of wrongful termination, (plaintiff) has the burden of proving each of six essential propositions:
First, that [he][she] sustained damages;
Second, that (defendant) distributed a [manual] [handbook] [or] (insert terminology used) to [his][her][its] employees, including (plaintiff);
Third, that the [manual, handbook, etc.] contained [an] express provision[s] concerning [termination of employment for cause] [or] [layoff from employment];
Fourth, that (plaintiff) relied on [that][those] provision[s];
Fifth, that (defendant) failed to follow [that] [those] provision[s] when (plaintiff) was [terminated] [laid off]; and
Sixth, that the [termination] [layoff] was the proximate cause of (plaintiff)'s damages.
[If you find from the evidence in this case that each of these propositions has been proved, then your verdict should be for (plaintiff) against (defendant);
but if, on the other hand, you find from the evidence that any of these propositions has not been proved, then your verdict should be for (defendant)].
This instruction is designed for use when there is no definite term of employment or written employment agreement and reliance is placed on the provisions of an employment manual. It may be modified for use in a case involving an employment contract.
Do not use the final bracketed paragraph when the case is submitted on interrogatories.
In Gladden v. Arkansas Children's Hosp., 292 Ark. 130, 728 S.W.2d 501 (1987), the Court rejected “as outmoded and untenable” the applicability of the employment at-will doctrine even where the employment agreement contains an express provision requiring cause for termination, and modified that rule to permit enforcement of such a provision in a personnel manual upon which an employee relies. That modified rule was applied in Cisco v. King, 90 Ark. App. 307, 205 S.W.3d 808 (2005).
The requisite agreement must be express and will not be implied from other provisions. Mertyris v. P.A.M. Transport, Inc., 310 Ark. 132, 832 S.W.2d 823 (1992) (seven listed specific grounds for termination insufficient); Hice v. City of Fort Smith, 75 Ark. App. 410, 58 S.W.3d 870 (2001) (handbook stated it was not a contract and that employment was at-will); St. Edward Mercy Medical Center v. Ellison, 58 Ark. App. 100, 946 S.W.2d 726 (1997) (same).
In Crain Industries, Inc. v. Cass, 305 Ark. 566, 810 S.W.2d 910 (1991), the at-will exception was expanded to apply to an express provision for layoffs on the basis of seniority. In that case, a post-employment disclaimer of contractual employment was not enforced because it was not shown to have been noticed to employees. See also Crawford County v. Jones, 365 Ark. 585, 232 S.W.3d 433 (2006) (layoff procedure enforced). Compare Faulkner v. Arkansas Children's Hosp., 347 Ark. 941, 69 S.W.3d 393 (2002) (internal grievance process regarding reassignment held not the same as a termination for cause provision in an employment manual and not enforced).
In Magic Touch Corp. v. Hicks, 99 Ark. App. 334, 260 S.W.3d 322 (2007), an employment agreement required “just cause as set out in the Employee Handbook” for termination, and the handbook provided for dismissal for “insubordination.” The court observed that, while the existence of justification for termination is usually a question of fact, the term “insubordination” is not ambiguous and need not be defined. In that case the evidence clearly established just cause on the ground of insubordination, and the trial court’s finding to the contrary was clearly erroneous.
An implied provision of an at-will employment contract is that an employee will not be discharged for an act done in the public interest. Lynn v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 102 Ark. App. 65, 280 S.W.3d 574 (2008). This public policy exception to the at-will doctrine is grounded in the statutes and constitution of the state. Id. An employer’s purported failure to follow its private, internal policies or the labor laws of foreign countries does not implicate the public policy of Arkansas. Id.
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