Employee Handbooks: Are They Enforceable Contract Rights?

imagesWhen I hear the perks enjoyed by some corporate employees – the flex time, the telecommuting, bosses who live and work in other states, getting to “work” from home about 310 days a year in jammies, etc. – I can’t help but be a bit mystified and envious.  “I know I went to Starbucks 18 times today and watched early 90s Dallas Cowboys telecasts on a continuous YouTube loop, but, I was working.  Honest!”  Good thing I’m not jealous (cough).  Or projecting (cough cough).

Now add a corporate Home Sale Buyout Program (the Home Sale Program) to the list of fringe amenities I’ve neither heard of nor experienced.  That’s what’s involved in Carpenter v. Sirva Relocation, LLC, 2013 WL 6454253 (N.D.Ill. 2013), a Northern District case where a transferred Office Depot employee sued her employer and its relocation company for not honoring promised relocation benefits.


The plaintiff agreed to move to another state to assume a manager position and sought relocation from her employer.

Office Depot offered a three-pronged program that included facilitating the employee’s home sale, providing moving expenses and an additional lump sum payment.  The relocation program was administered by a third-party relocation company -an Office Depot independent contractor.

A salient feature of the relocation package was that if the employee’s house didn’t sell after 90 days market time, The employer would buy the home based on a contractual pricing formula.

After plaintiff accepted the transfer and moved out of state,  The Office Depot told plaintiff that it couldn’t buy plaintiff’s Chicago home since it was a Co-op – a property type outside the scope of the relocation program.

Plaintiff brought contract and tort claims against Office Depot and its independent relocation contractor.  Both defendants moved for summary judgment on all claims.

Held: Plaintiff’s breach of contract claim against Office Depot survives summary judgment.  Plaintiffs’ claims against moving contractor don’t.


The Court denied Office Depot’s summary judgment motion on plaintiff’s breach of contract claim.

Plaintiff’s claim was premised on an email and written benefits guide that summarized the relocation benefits.  The guide contained profuse boilerplate disclaimers.

An Illinois breach of contract plaintiff must show (1) the existence of a valid contract, (2) substantial performance by the plaintiff, (3) breach by the defendant, and (4) resulting damages.

For an employee handbook to create enforceable contract rights, (1) the handbook must contain a clear promise such that the employee believes an offer has been made, (2) it must be disseminated to the employee such that the employee reasonably believes the handbook consists of an offer, and (3) the employee must accept the offer by starting or continuing to work after he sees the policy/handbook statement.  

An employment contract disclaimer – if clear and direct – is a defense to a breach of contract suit based on an employee handbook.  *5.

Applying these rules, the Court held that the plaintiff offered sufficient breach of contract evidence to defeat Office Depot’s summary judgment motion.  The Court found the e-mail attachment that sketched out the Relocation program was clear and definite enough to support a colorable contract claim.

The plaintiff also offered evidence that she never saw the benefits guide that contained the co-op disclaimer.  She also showed that she accepted the job transfer in reliance on Office Depot’s email that didn’t mention the co-op exclusion.  Taken together, this was enough for plaintiff to go to trial on her breach of contract claim.  *5-6.

The Court did sustain the relocation contractor’s summary judgment motion.  There was no direct contact between plaintiff and the contractor as all talks flowed through Office Depot.

The plaintiff also didn’t show she was a third-party beneficiary of the subcontract agreement between Office Depot and the moving company: there was nothing in the subcontract that reflected an intent to benefit the plaintiff.*6.

Take-aways: Employer handbooks and published policies can create enforceable contract rights if they are specific enough for a reasonable reader to infer that an offer or promise has been made.

The case also solidifies contract law axiom that there must be privity – a connection – between two parties to give rise to contract rights.  Here, since there was no direct contact between plaintiff and the relocation company, the plaintiff couldn’t state a breach of contract claim against the company.


Contractual Exculpatory Provisions and Procedural and Substantive Unconscionability – Some Illinois Bullet-Points

Exculpatory and limitation of damages provisions are staples of commercial transactions; especially in the service contract setting.  The former shields a contracting party from all liability (“if something goes wrong, I’m not responsible”), while the latter caps a party’s monetary damages (“if something goes wrong, my maximum liability is $100”).

For decades, cases across the land have grappled with the validity and enforceability of these contract terms.  Generally, whether a given disclaimer is upheld comes down to a fact-specific analysis of the terms’ prominence and text size (can you find it?) along with the nuances of the parties’ relationship. (is a dominant person taking advantage of a more vulnerable person?)

 Exculpatory Provisions

Illinois favors freedom of contract and exculpatory provisions are generally enforceable unless (1) it’s against public policy to do so or (2) there is something in the social relationship of the parties which weighs against enforcing the term.

Exculpatory terms are not favored and must be strictly construed against the benefitting party, especially where that party drafted the contract.

An exculpatory clause violates public policy where (1) the contract involves an employer-employee relationship, (2) is between the public and those charged with a public duty (i.e. a common carrier or utility), or (3) there is a disparity in bargaining power between the parties so that freedom of choice is lacking.

Courts also look at whether Disclaimers are unconscionable.  Procedural unconscionability applies where the disclaimer is hard to find, buried or hidden.

A contract term is substantively unconscionable where it’s blatantly one-sided and completely favors one party at the expense of the other.

 Illinois’ Construction Contract Indemnification for Negligence Act, 740 ILCS 35/1 posits that agreements to indemnify against a contractor’s negligence are void as against public policy. 

Illinois Disclaimer rules glaringly reflect the importance of pre-contract negotiation.  Parties are free to allocate risks as they see fit and where they are both sophisticated commercial entities, freedom of contract rules prevail and exculpatory clauses will be upheld – save for any public policy reasons against their enforcement.




Exculpatory Clauses in Illinois – The ‘Uneven Bargaining Position’ Issue

Spears v. Ass’n of Illinois Electric Cooperatives, 2013 IL App (4th) 120289 summarizes the general rules and exceptions that govern exculpatory clauses in Illinois.  In the case, the plaintiff college student who signed up for a utility “pole climbing” class the defendant – a non-profit entity – offered through plaintiff’s college.  Before she took the class, plaintiff signed a release that immunized the defendant from all claims and injuries that could result from the class. 

The plaintiff sustained a serious knee injury while descending a utility pole and sued the defendant for negligence.  The defendant moved for summary judgment based on the release. The trial court denied the summary judgment motion and found there was a disparity in bargaining power. 

The appeals court reversed finding there were unresolved fact issues as to whether there was a disparity in bargaining power between the student and school.

Exculpatory Provisions: General Rules

In Illinois, parties may contractually release liability for their own negligence.  Spears, ¶ 24.  Liability release contracts are not favored and are strictly construed against the released party because these contracts pit two public policy interests against each other: (1) a person should be liable for his negligent conduct vs. (2) contracting parties should be free to contract as they see fit.  Id.

A release of liability will be enforced in Illinois if (1) the terms are clear, explicit and precise; (2) the release encompasses the activity, circumstance or situations involved in the contract; (3) it is not against public policy; and (4) there is nothing in the “social relationship” which weighs against upholding the release.  ¶ 25.

The ‘Social Relationship’ and Disparity of Bargaining  Power Exceptions

Several social relationships can lead a court to invalidate an exculpatory clause.  These include: (1) employer-employee; (2) common carrier/innkeeper/public utility – member of public; and (3) bailor-bailee relationships.   

Besides these special relationships, a “disparity of bargaining power” between the contracting parties can work to defeat a liability waiver.  On this point, the key focus is whether the plaintiff had freedom of choice as to whether to sign the release.  ¶ 26.

The disparity in bargaining power factors a court considers include (1) the sophistication of the contracting parties; (2) whether plaintiff was or should have been aware of the risks involved in the activity; (3) whether plaintiff was under economic or other compulsion (was it a “take-it-or-leave-it” situation?); and (4) whether the plaintiff had a reasonable alternative. ¶ 27.

The over-arching question which Spears refused to answer was whether there was a disparity of bargaining power between an educator and a student such that exculpatory releases in school-student contracts are always void.  The Court said it was up to the legislature (not the courts) to decide the question. ¶ 36. 

Generally, if a plaintiff is free to forgo the activity and he can realistically locate a alternative service provider, the release will be upheld.  In determining whether the plaintiff was free to abstain from the class, the Court considered (1) the plaintiff’s monetary and time investment in the activity; (2) whether the plaintiff’s completion of the pole climbing class was essential for future employment; (3) whether plaintiff could have obtained the same or similar instruction elsewhere; (4) would refusing to take the pole climbing class detrimentally impact plaintiff’ employment prospects?; and (5) would plaintiff’s financial aid, grants or scholarship be imperiled if she opted out of the class?  ¶ 39. 


Spears common-sense take-away is that if the person signing the release had a meaningful choice as to whether to sign it or not, the release will most likely be enforced absent a special-relationship between the parties where a stronger party is trying to take advantage of a weaker one.