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05/01/95 MARK L. BROWN v. R.R. DONNELLY & SONS

May 1, 1995

MARK L. BROWN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
R.R. DONNELLY & SONS COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from Circuit Court of Coles County. No. 90L57. Honorable Paul C. Komada, Judge Presiding.

As Corrected May 31, 1995. Rehearing Denied June 9, 1995.

Honorable Robert J. Steigmann, J., Honorable Carl A. Lund, J., Concurring, Honorable Robert W. Cook, J., Dissenting

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steigmann

JUSTICE STEIGMANN delivered the opinion of the court:

In July 1990, plaintiff, Mark Brown, sued defendant, R. R. Donnelly & Sons Company, his former employer, alleging that defendant wrongfully terminated his employment in violation of the terms of defendant's employee handbook. In March 1994, the trial court dismissed plaintiff's complaint with prejudice, finding plaintiff was an employee terminable at will.

Plaintiff appeals, and we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff alleged in his complaint that defendant hired him in December 1980 as a temporary employee at defendant's Mattoon manufacturing division. Plaintiff became acquainted with defendant's "employee relations manual" (manual) during his temporary employment, and he believed the terms of the manual would govern his employment when he accepted a full-time position with defendant in 1982. Plaintiff worked continuously as a full-time employee for defendant from 1982 until he was fired in August 1988.

Plaintiff further alleged that Dan Silverman and Mark Smith, management employees of defendant, falsely accused him of (1) disrupting the workplace, (2) threatening to kill co-workers, (3) holding a gun to his supervisor's head, (4) being unable to discharge his duties, and (5) lying to company officials. Silverman and Smith confronted plaintiff with these allegations, and he denied them. Defendant subsequently fired plaintiff for lying to company officials, based upon his denial of the allegations, and for committing the alleged acts.

Plaintiff claims his termination violated the following sections of the manual: (1) section ER1-0200, entitled "The Open Door Policy," which provided in part that "it is Company policy to assure that every employee gets a square deal, fair treatment, and *** [an] impartial hearing and handling of complaints"; (2) section ER1-0600, entitled "Employment Security," which provided under subsection II(J) that "it is Company practice to: base all separations on verified facts, not on anyone's whim or unsupported opinion"; and (3) sections ERS-0110 and ER5-0150, which described the company's formal and informal grievance procedures.

In May 1992, defendant moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 110, par. 2-615). In July 1992, the trial court ruled that section ER1-0200 of the manual, which provided that every employee was entitled to a "square deal" and "fair treatment," did not contain terms that were sufficiently clear to create enforceable contract rights. Accordingly, the court struck the reference to section ER1-0200 from plaintiff's complaint, and plaintiff did not appeal that ruling. The trial court allowed plaintiff to proceed under the theory that the remaining sections of the manual created enforceable rights. In February 1994, the court heard additional arguments attacking the legal sufficiency of plaintiff's complaint, and in March 1994, reversed its earlier ruling and entered a written order concluding that none of the remaining sections of the manual could be interpreted as creating contractual rights.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The parties agree that the sole issue on appeal is whether the language of defendant's employment manual contained a promise which was sufficiently clear and definite to constitute a contractual offer. This issue constitutes a question of law to be determined in the first instance by the trial court, not a trier of fact. ( Harrell v. Montgomery Ward & Co. (1989), 189 Ill. App. 3d 516, 521, 545 N.E.2d 373, 376, 136 Ill. Dec. 849.) The correctness of the trial court's ruling on this question of law will be determined by this court independently ...


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