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Sylvain v. Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Corp.

Superior Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex

March 23, 2016

Gerda Sylvain
Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Corporation et al. No. 133100


          Robert B. Gordon, Justice of the Superior Court.

         Presented for decision is the Defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. For the reasons which follow, the Court concludes that the defendants' motion must be ALLOWED .


         Plaintiff Gerda Sylvain has brought a breach of contract action against her erstwhile employer (hereinafter " Spaulding Rehabilitation").[1] The gravamen of plaintiff's claim is that Spaulding Rehabilitation issued her an " Employee Handbook" which contained policies concerning workplace conduct and disciplinary action. The Complaint asserts that " [a] fair reading of [Spaulding Rehabilitation's] employee handbook constitutes an alteration of the employment at-will relationship, " and charges the defendant with breaching that contract when it dismissed Sylvain from employment without utilizing any of the first three steps of its progressive discipline procedure.

         The defendants' have moved to dismiss on each of two alternate grounds. First, they maintain that, even indulging the facts in the manner most hospitable to the plaintiff, the allegations of the Complaint permit no fair inference that Spaulding Rehabilitation's Employee Handbook constitutes an enforceable contract or otherwise modified the parties' at-will relationship. Second, Spaulding Rehabilitation argues that, even if the terms of the Employee Handbook could be given contractual effect, the allegations set forth in the Complaint fail to demonstrate a breach of any of such terms.


         Sylvain was a Certified Nursing Assistant employed by Spaulding Rehabilitation from April 2004 until her discharge in April 2012. Prior to her dismissal, Sylvain received consistently satisfactory performance reviews.

         At some point during her employment, Sylvain received an Employee Handbook.[3] 41 pages in length, the Handbook contained a variety of personnel policies. One such policy was entitled " Corrective Discipline, " and provided in pertinent part as follows:

If your conduct interferes with the orderly and efficient operation of Spaulding Nursing & Therapy--North End, either through poor performance, poor attendance, or misconduct, corrective action will be taken to address the behavior. Corrective discipline usually proceeds in the following steps:
First Step--Counseling with written note
Second Step--Written Warning
Third Step--Final Written Warning or Disciplinary Suspension
Fourth Step--Discharge
The progressive approach may be modified based on the facts and circumstances of each case. Some rule infractions may be so serious as to cause immediate discharge.

( Employee Handbook, at p. 15.)

         A related policy set forth in the Employee Handbook (" Grievance Process") provided in relevant part as follows:

You always have the right to present a matter of concern regarding corrective action . . . to your supervisor and/or department head and have it considered on its merits. The presentation of a concern will have no adverse impact on your employment status. All concerns will be promptly reviewed and answered.
The formal grievance procedure can only be applied to final warnings, suspensions or discharges. This in no way prevents informal problem solving. A concern should be discussed promptly so that it does not become a lingering problem . . .
Discharged employees, if grieving, must begin the process at Step II described below.
Staff who do not initiate a grievance within 10 calendar days of knowledge of the facts related to the grievance forfeit the right to grieve the matter.

( Employee Handbook, at pp. 15-16.) The Grievance Process goes on to specify four discrete levels of review that a grieving employee can bring to bear on her claim. Step I calls for a discussion with the employee's immediate supervisor, who is required to respond to the grievance within five working days. If the employee is not satisfied, she may take the grievance to Step II. Step II of the process entails presenting the grievance in writing to the employee's department head, who must hold a grievance meeting and respond in writing within five working days. If the employee remains dissatisfied, she may advance the grievance to Step III. At Step III, a representative of the Human Resources Department will review the grievance and provide a written response within 14 days of the conclusion of the Department's review. Finally, if the employee remains dissatisfied with the decision of Human Resources, she may present the grievance in writing to Spaulding Rehabilitation's Executive Director. This step concludes the internal grievance process. ( Employee Handbook, at pp. 16-17.)

         The Grievance Process does not state explicitly that utilization of the procedure is required, failing which the employee will forfeit rights to bring a contract action in court. The Grievance Process does suggest, however, that employees were meant to exercise rights thereunder in a prompt, informal and non-litigious manner: " This process is designed to assure a fair and impartial review of your case in an informal, non-judicial atmosphere." (Id. at 17.)

         On August 17, 2012, Sylvain became involved in a workplace dispute with a co-employee named Gimina Arthur. What began as a verbal quarrel in a patient room over a staffing request escalated into a physical altercation, with Arthur punching and kicking Sylvain and Sylvain grabbing Arthur by the hair. Sylvain characterizes this episode as one in which Arthur was the instigator, and she the victim. In all events, however, the Employee Handbook's " Rules of Conduct" section explicitly forbids " [d]isorderly conduct such as fighting on [Spaulding Rehabilitation] ...

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