Minnesota’s highest court has issued its opinion in Lee v. Fresenius Medical Care, Inc. This case addresses the question of whether an employer can attach conditions to an employee’s being paid for accrued but unused vacation leave.
Susan Lee worked for Fresenius Medical Care, and had accrued unused paid time off. Fresenius terminated Lee for alleged misconduct. The Fresenius employee handbook provided:
Unless otherwise required by state law, if you do not give acceptable notice, you may not be paid for earned but unused PTO, and you may not be considered eligible for re-employment. In addition, if your employment is terminated for misconduct, you will not be eligible for pay in lieu of notice or payment of earned but unused PTO unless required by state law.
Fresenius denied Lee payment for her unused PTO; Lee sued, arguing that, because she had earned the PTO under the employer’s policy and because accrued PTO is a type of wage, Fresenius violated a Minnesota wage payment statute by refusing to pay for the unused time.
The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that employers are not required to offer vacation leave or pay in lieu of leave. If they do extend such an offer, they can define eligibility for the leave or payments as they wish, so long as the policy does not violate any law. For example, an employer could offer vacation leave so that it accrues at a certain rate each month, but condition the use of the leave on approval by a manager; or an employer could limit the carryover of leave from one year to the next and require that most or all of an employee’s available leave be taken within some period of time; or—as in the Lee case—an employer could require a minimum notice of termination before the employee is entitled to be paid for accrued but unused leave, or even prohibit such payments completely if the employee is terminated for cause.
In Lee, the Court ruled:
[W]hen employers choose to offer paid time off as a benefit, employers and employees can contract for the circumstances under which employees are entitled to paid time off and payment in lieu of paid time off, so long as the contract provisions are not prohibited by or otherwise in conflict with a statute.
The Court essentially adopted its now-familiar analysis of how an employee handbook can become a binding contract. If the policy text is sufficiently clear, if the employee has sufficient notice of the policy, and if the employee thereafter signifies his or her acceptance of the policy by continuing to work for the employer, then the policy may be contractually binding.
Since the Supreme Court announced this “unilateral contract” approach to employee handbooks in 1983, most employers with handbooks have attempted to avoid any potentially binding effect by plainly stating that the provisions of the handbook are not intended to form a contract. The Lee case, however, supports the better practice of disclaiming the contractual effect of only some provisions while emphasizing that certain other provisions are binding, including for example the limitations on vacation leave or pay.
The Lee case had a strenuously argued dissent. The dissenting judge wrote that, if an employer’s policies define how vacation leave is earned, then once it has been earned it cannot be taken away without constituting an unlawful forfeiture. The majority rejected that analysis, finding instead:
[E]mployers may offer, and employees may accept, a contract provision that attaches conditions to the right to accrued vacation “wages,” whether in the form of actual paid time off or payment in lieu of paid time off…. [S]uch conditions define what has been earned.
The principles of the Lee case apply to vacation, paid time off, non-statutory sick leave, and a range of other benefits that are not mandated by law. Most vacation leave or paid time off policies that were written or revised by Nierenberg Employment Law have been carefully drafted to provide a benefit of time off only, and not payment in lieu of leave; those policies are consistent with this new case and should not need revision. However, all employers should nevertheless review their vacation, sick leave, and paid time off policies to be sure that they reflect the policies and values of the organization and that, if desired, they take advantage of the opportunities presented by this case.