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WILLIS L. PERRY v. SEARS ROEBUCK & CO.

MAY 27, 1987

WILLIS L. PERRY
v.
SEARS ROEBUCK & CO., ET AL.



BEFORE WALKER, C.J., AND ROBERTSON AND ANDERSON, JJ.,

ANDERSON, JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:

This appeal from the Chancery Court of Forrest County presents us with a story all the more depressing for being sadly familiar. Willis Perry served the Sears, Roebuck organization faithfully and with distinction for some twenty years. He was almost within sight of retirement when Sears unceremoniously dumped him because of a personality conflict with his immediate supervisor. This is not the first time we have taken note of corporate callousness towards loyal workers. See., e.g., our remarks in Shaw v. Burchfield, 481 So. 2d 247 (Miss. 1985). In that case, we observed with chagrin that" the attendant rights and burdens are imposed by law, not by sympathy or outrage. "481 So. 2d at 249. It is the same in today's case. The Golden Rule, unfortunately, is not a rule of law.

Willis Perry joined Sears as a serviceman in New Orleans in 1962. Over the next ten years, he completed an average of 9.3 service calls per day, as opposed to Sears' nationwide average of six. In 1972 he moved to Hattiesburg and went to work at the Sears store there. His supervisor there was co-defendant Gerald Porter. For years Perry continued to do an outstanding job; work evaluation documents prepared by Porter contain highly favorable comments. Perry alleges that Porter's attitude towards him changed after he, Perry, took time off to have surgery on his cervical vertebrae in 1982. Thereafter, Porter began giving Perry the most inconvenient and time-consuming service calls. Matters came to a head in 1983, when an opening occurred for the job of warehouse supervisor for Laurel and Hattiesburg. Perry applied for the job, but on Porter's recommendation, it was given to another. Perry became angry at this and confronted Porter, telling him that he was nothing but a drunkard and that" he gave [the job] to one of his beer-drinking buddies "rather than to the most qualified candidate.

 Shortly after this incident, on May 4, 1983, Perry

 was at home when he received a call from Sears' personnel director Dan Zwicker, who told him to report to the warehouse. He did so. There he was confronted by Zwicker and Porter, who told him he was fired.

 Based on this incident, Perry filed a complaint alleging breach of contract and wrongful termination. He asked for specific performance of the alleged contract in the way of reinstatement with all back pay and benefits. In the alternative, he sought damages in the amount of $871,000.

 After Perry put on his evidence, the defendants moved for summary judgment. The trial judge granted the motion, ruling that there had been no evidence of an employment contract and observing that Mississippi recognizes no common-law cause of action for wrongful termination.

 ASSIGNMENT OF ERROR.

 WAS PERRY WRONGFULLY DISCHARGED?

 A. Breach of contract. It is undisputed that there was no written employment contract specifying the length of Perry's employment. Thus, on the face of it, Perry would seem to fall victim to Mississippi's adherence to the common law rule that where there is no employment contract (or where there is a contract which does not specify the term of the worker's employment), the relation may be terminated at will by either party. Mississippi has followed this rule since 1858. Butler v. Smith & Tharpe, 35 Miss. (6 Geo.) 457, 464 (1858). Appellant nonetheless contends that an implied contract existed which forbade Sears to dismiss Perry without cause. The source of this implied contract is alleged to be a Sears policy handbook, incorporated in the record. We have difficulty in that the appellant's brief does not quote or cite that portion of the Sears manual supporting their claim. Nor have we been able to find any statement prescribing the procecure for termination. The only statement that seems germane to this case is found on page 35 of the Pension Plan Manual; it hardly supports the appellant's position. In bold type it says" Employment rights not implied. "It further explains:" Participation in the plan does not give you the right to be retained in the employ of Sears, nor does it interfere in any way with the right of the company to discharge or terminate you at any time without regard to the effect of such discharge or termination may have on your rights under the plan. "

 The appellant cites numerous cases for the proposition that statements found in a personnel or pension manual or other representations can create contractual obligations, even in the absence of a written agreement. This is perfectly true. E.g. Cleary v. American Air Lines, 111 Cal. App. 3d 443, 168 Cal. Rptr. 722, 729 (1980); Toussaint v. Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan, 408 Mich. 579, 292 N. W. 2d 880, 892-94 (1980); Weiner v. McGraw-Hill, 57 N. Y. 2d 458, 443 N.E. 2d 441, 442, 457 NYS 2d 193, 194 (1982); Hercules Powder Co. v. Brookfield, 189 Va. 531, 53 S.E. 2d 804, 808-09 (1949).

 Mississippi follows a version of this rule. In 1985, we held that a written contract can be modified by a policy handbook which then becomes part of the contract, but only where the contract expressly provides that it will be performed in accordance with the policies, rules and regulations of the employer. Robinson v. Bd. of Trustees of East Central Junior College, 477 So. 2d 1352, 1353, (Miss. 1985).

 Neither Robinson nor any of the cases cited above are of any avail to Perry, because his employment agreement contains an express statement that Sears did not intend to waive its right to terminate him unilaterally by promulgating the policy handbooks. We found no case in which a policy agreement was held to create a factual right to dismissal for cause only in the face of such a provision. On the contrary, the cases all hold that such provision precludes any action for wrongful termination by the severed employee. Indeed, two of these cases involve Sears itself. Batchelor v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 574 F. Supp. 1480, 1484-85 (E. D. Mich. 1973); Novosel v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 495 F. Supp. 344, 346 (E. D. Mich. 1980). See also Crain v. Burroughs Corp., 560 F. Supp. 849, 852 (C. D. Cal. 1983); Holloway v. K-Mart Corp., 113 Wis. 2d 570, 334 N. W. 2d 570, 572 (1983).

 This line of cases seems well grounded. If this court were to agree with Perry's argument, it would be holding that a valid, express agreement and a contradictory implied agreement can exist concerning the same subject ...


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