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Cunningham v. Anderson County

Supreme Court of South Carolina

September 2, 2015

Michael Cunningham, Respondent/Petitioner,
v.
Anderson County, Petitioner/Respondent

Heard: March 18, 2015.

Appeal from Anderson County. The Honorable Alexander S. Macaulay, Circuit Court Judge. Appellate Case No. 2013-000678.

William W. Wilkins and Kristen E. Small, both of Nexsen Pruet, LLC, of Greenville, for Petitioner/Respondent.

John S. Nichols, of Bluestein, Nichols, Thompson & Delgado, LLC, of Columbia, and Brian P. Murphy, of Stephenson & Murphy, LLC, of Greenville, for Respondent/Petitioner.

JUSTICE HEARN. PLEICONES and KITTREDGE, JJ., concur. BEATTY, J., dissenting in a separate opinion in which TOAL, C.J., concurs.

OPINION

HEARN JUSTICE:

This case arises from the termination of Michael Cunningham as the county administrator for Anderson County. Cunningham brought this action alleging breach of contract, wrongful discharge, and violation of the Payment of Wages Act. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the County on all causes of action. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court on the breach of contract and Payment of Wages claims, but reversed and remanded the wrongful discharge claim. Cunningham v. Anderson Cnty., 402 S.C. 434, 741 S.E.2d 545 (Ct.App. 2013). The County contends the court of appeals erred by reversing the trial court's grant of summary judgment on the wrongful discharge claim because Cunningham has never argued he is a noncontractual, at-will employee. We agree and reverse the portion of the court of appeals' opinion reversing and remanding that claim.[1]

FACTUAL/PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

During the November 18, 2008 Anderson County Council meeting, the seven member council--three of whom had not been reelected earlier that month--voted 5-2 to enter into a Master Employment Agreement (the Contract) with Cunningham, employing him as the new county administrator. Cunningham signed the Contract for employment the following day. The term of his employment was three years, and the Contract would perpetually renew absent ninety days' notice. The Contract provided that the administrator " serve[s] at the pleasure of [the council]" and although it indicated that nothing could prevent the council from terminating Cunningham, those terms were subject to other limitations provided in the " Termination and Severance Pay" section. Under that section, the County could only terminate Cunningham for cause if he was convicted of any crime involving personal gain or of moral turpitude; refused to perform the duties of his office; or suffered a serious illness requiring more than ninety days' absence. If the council terminated Cunningham without cause, he would be entitled to " all pay and financial benefits remaining on his contract for the balance of the contract period" as well as compensation for " all earned sick leave, vacation, holidays, compensatory time and other accrued benefits." Additionally, the Contract provided that Cunningham would receive " additional severance pay . . . based upon the length of his total service to the County, and computed at the rate of one month aggregate compensation under this Agreement for every two years of such service."

The newly constituted county council, which began serving in January of 2009, immediately passed a resolution condemning the manner in which Cunningham was hired. The new council later offered Cunningham another contract of employment which was expressly at-will and contained none of the " parachute" provisions entitling him to severance for termination without cause, which Cunningham rejected. The council thereafter recommended Cunningham be terminated. Cunningham requested a hearing and upon its conclusion, the council voted 5-2 to terminate him.

Cunningham subsequently brought this action alleging breach of contract, wrongful discharge, and requesting payment under the Payment of Wages Act. He argued he was due severance and sick leave under the Contract, and that he was wrongfully discharged in violation of public policy because he refused to commit the criminal act of discharging employees for political reasons.

The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the County on all claims. Specifically, it found the contract was unenforceable against the new council and that because Cunningham had never argued he was an at-will employee, he could not claim he was wrongfully discharged in violation of public policy. Cunningham appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed the portion of the trial court's order finding the Contract unenforceable. Cunningham, 402 S.C. at 450, 741 S.E.2d at 554. However, it reversed and remanded on the issue of wrongful discharge stating the " illegality of [the Contract], . . . relegated Cunningham to an at-will status" and he should therefore not be precluded from proceeding on the wrongful discharge claim. Id. at 456, 741 S.E.2d at 557. The County petitioned for a writ of certiorari which the Court granted.

ISSUE PRESENTED

Did the court of appeals err in reversing the trial court's grant of summary judgment for the County on ...


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