SC Lawyer, Nov. 2004, #3. South Carolina's Handbook Law.

AuthorBy William Floyd III and James C. Leventis Jr.

South Carolina Lawyer


SC Lawyer, Nov. 2004, #3.

South Carolina's Handbook Law

South Carolina LawyerNovember 2004South Carolina's Handbook LawGet in line for new versions and disclaimers!By William Floyd III and James C. Leventis Jr.At its best, an employee handbook is a vital communication and organizational tool. It provides legally required notices to employees, communicates workplace performance and behavior standards and advises employees of their rights and responsibilities. At its worst, an employee handbook may unintentionally create a contract of employment and unwanted liability and legal fees. That latter possibility has occurred with increasing frequency due to a series of decisions by South Carolina courts. South Carolina's legislature recently responded by passing a new statute addressing how employers can reduce the risk of an employee handbook becoming an implied employment contract. Effective July 1, 2004, the new law has prompted employers to revise their handbooks and other documents and left disgruntled employees considering other options.

This article briefly discusses the at-will doctrine in South Carolina, introduces the new handbook law and reviews some issues employers face in implementing the new law.


The employment at-will doctrine in South Carolina

South Carolina common law has long recognized that an employee or employer can end the employment relationship at any time with or without notice or cause. See Ludwick v. This Minute of Carolina, Inc., 287 S.C. 219, 337 S.E.2d 213 (1985); Hudson v. Zenith Engraving Co., 273 S.C. 766, 259 S.E.2d 812 (1979). Commonly known as the "employment-at-will" doctrine, it has slowly eroded through such decisions as Small v. Springs Industries, Inc., 292 S.C. 481, 357 S.E.2d 452 (1987).

In Springs, plaintiff Kathy Small alleged a cause of action for breach of contract on the basis that the company's employee handbook altered the otherwise at-will employment relationship and created an implied-in-fact contract of employment. TheSouth Carolina Supreme Court agreed. The Court noted, however, that if an employer wanted to issue handbooks or bulletins as purely advisory statements with no intention of altering the at-will relationship, it could insert a "conspicuous disclaimer or provision into the written document."

The next step: Conner v.

City of Forest Acres

A number of post-Springs decisions have dealt with the employee handbook issue, but recent decisions help explain the impetus for the new handbook law. (For further background, please see "Employee Handbooks: Are they worth the risk?" in the January 2003 edition of the South Carolina Lawyer).

The most famous of the recent cases is Conner v. City of Forest Acres, 348 S.C. 454, 560 S.E.2d 606 (2002); compare Horton v. Darby Electric Co., Inc., Op. No. 25839 (S.C. Sup. Ct. filed July 6, 2004) (South Carolina Supreme Court...

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