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BLOG / 09.13.19 /Jack Malley

Why have a well-drafted handbook? Let a federal court answer that question . . .

A Third Circuit decision on August 22, 2019, which upheld FedEx’s termination of two employees, demonstrates the value of well-drafted employee handbook policies.[1] FedEx’s employee handbook included a code of conduct that prohibited workplace violence. Among other things, the code barred “gestures and expressions” and “oral and written statements” that communicate a direct or indirect threat of harm. In a workplace violence prevention meeting, FedEx specifically warned employees that any team member found to have engaged in serious prohibited behavior would be subject to termination of employment.

Two former FedEx drivers, Stanley Shinn and Paul Ellis, were terminated in April and June 2015. Shinn had told a third employee to “go outside away from everyone and talk about this”, and later, to go off-site to talk about the altercation, in response to threats against Shinn made earlier in the company breakroom. A FedEx internal investigation found that Shinn’s statements were a threat of violence and terminated him. Ellis was terminated two months later after he and Shinn posted on Facebook: “that [expletive] just waltz’s down the dock every morning happy as can be … like nothing happened … given the chance … he’s gonna have an accident on the dock.”

Shinn and Ellis sued FedEx alleging that their termination was in retaliation for their participation in the investigation of the breakroom incident and Ellis’s repeated exercise of his FMLA leave rights. The Court rejected the claim. The former employees failed to offer any evidence to credibly counter FedEx’s argument that termination was based upon FedEx’s workplace violence policy, i.e., the employee handbook policy prohibiting direct or indirect threats of workplace violence.

The Federal Court answers our question. Having a well-crafted and clear employee handbook was critical to FedEx avoiding liability and potential damages for wrongful termination, and FedEx’s workplace violence prevention meeting wisely emphasized, to employees, both the importance of that handbook and that future violations of the policy could have serious consequences.

[1] Shinn, et al v. FedEx Freight, Inc., No. 18-3173, 2019 WL 39-6511 (3rd Cir. Aug. 22, 2019)