The legal posture of employment manuals, first recognized as legally binding in Minnesota nearly 30 years ago, took a hit last year in the context of an unemployment compensation claim. The role of handbooks in providing job security or other protection to employees has been tottering ever since the Minnesota Supreme Court first recognized that provisions in the handbooks may be binding upon employers in termination cases in Pine River State Bank v. Mettille, 333 N.W.2d 622 (Minn. 1983). The Pine River case marked the high-water point for employees relying upon these documents to provide rights for them in the workplace. In the spring of 2011 the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that an employer’s failure to follow progressive discipline provisions of a handbook did not constitute a defense to an employee who was discharged for contesting a claim of “misconduct” when seeking unemployment compensation benefits. In Stagg v. Vintage Place, Inc., 2011 WL 1485426 (Minn. 2011), the court ruled that the employer’s failure to follow procedures in the handbook may not be raised by an employee to litigate a “misconduct” claim. The court reasoned that the “focus” of an unemployment case based upon “misconduct” is on the employee’s behavior, not the employer’s failure to follow its own procedures. Employees and their advocates who formerly have relied upon provisions in employee handbooks in contesting unemployment compensation cases, therefore, need to find a new tack because that one probably will not work any longer. Employers and their advocates need not justify deviation from handbook procedures in order to establish “misconduct” in unemployment compensation proceedings.
Marshall H. Tanick
Mansfield, Tanick & Cohen, PA