Employment Handbooks Do Not Create Job Protections In Mississippi

Stanley Starks was terminated from his job as a canine officer with the Fayette, Mississippi Police Department on July 17, 2001, “for conduct unbecoming an officer.” In 2001, Starks, two other officers, and the Police Chief were preparing to conduct a drug raid on an apartment occupied by Lenice Winston. Winston was employed as a dispatcher for the Alcorn State University Police Department.

Prior to the raid, Starks called Winston and informed her that the police were planning to raid her apartment. Winston telephoned her apartment and told her boyfriend that the police were on the way and that he should leave the premises immediately. No one was present at Winston’s apartment at the time of the raid.
When the Chief learned what Starks had done, he instituted disciplinary proceeding. Though Starks denied the accusations against him, the Chief terminated Starks.

Starks brought a lawsuit, challenging his termination. In the Mississippi Court of Appeals, Starks ran headlong into the fact that Mississippi has no statewide collective bargaining laws, and that Mississippi police officers are considered to be “at-will” employees. Starks argued that the City’s employment handbook created a reasonable expectation of continuing employment on his part, effectively modifying the “at-will employment” rule and requiring the City to have cause for its decision to terminate him. Citing the existence in Mississippi of the at-will employment rule since 1858, the Court disagreed.

The Court found that “nothing in the manual indicates that it was designed to adjust the at-will status of employees such as Starks. Additionally, even if the manual could be interpreted as a City ordinance attempting to alter the status of City employees, when there is a conflict between a municipal ordinance and state law, the state law must prevail. Thus, the City lacks the authority to alter the at-will employment design of state law.”

Starks v. City of Fayette, 2005 WL 2358370 (Miss.App. 2005).

This article appears in the November 2005 issue