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Court Decision in Favor of FedEx Reinforces the Value of a Well-Drafted Handbook

    A Third Circuit decision issued on August 22, 2019 upholding FedEx’s termination of two employees demonstrates the value of well-drafted employee handbook policies. 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 response to prior incidents, FedEx held a workplace violence prevention meeting during which the company reset its expectations with respect to workplace violence and clarified its policy going forward with this warning: "Regardless of how corrective action has previously been addressed at this center for threats or other workplace violence incidents, going forward any team member who was found to have engaged in such serious prohibited behavior will be subject to termination of employment."

    The two plaintiffs, Stanley Shinn and Paul Ellis, were FedEx drivers employed in New Jersey. Shinn’s termination arose in April 2015 when Steven Buckley, another driver, confronted Shinn in the breakroom and used homophobic slurs to describe Shinn and Ellis for which Buckley was suspended. In response, Shinn challenged Buckley to “go outside away from everyone and talk about this,” but their clash was interrupted when FedEx’s shift meeting started. Later the same day Shinn asked Buckley to go to a nearby softball field to talk about the earlier altercation, but Buckley declined. FedEx investigated the incident and found that Shinn’s suggestion to take his conversation with Buckley to a different location was a threat of violence and Shinn was terminated.  

    In June 2015 Shinn and Ellis posted Facebook comments regarding Shinn’s firing as a result of the altercation with Buckley. Ellis wrote: “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.” FedEx was alerted to Ellis’s comment, construed it as a threat of violence against Buckley and terminated Ellis.

    Shinn and Ellis sued FedEx alleging that the 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 Third Circuit found that the plaintiffs did not submit any evidence that credibly countered FedEx’s position that the plaintiffs were fired because they violated FedEx’s workplace violence policy.

    Thus, FedEx successfully relied upon the employee handbook policy prohibiting direct or indirect threats of workplace violence for the terminations. It should also be noted that FedEx’s workplace violence prevention meeting was a wise move because it emphasized that future violations of the policy could have serious consequences.

    By Jack Malley