Service Letters: Requesting Written Reasons for Termination
In Missouri, certain employees have a right to request that their employer provide them a signed letter stating what they did for the employer and why they were discharged or voluntarily quit their employment. This letter is known as a “Service Letter” or “Letter of Dismissal.” However, there are very specific requirements which the employee must follow to make a valid request for such a letter. The attorneys with our Firm know the legal requirements applicable to such letters and can help advise you regarding the same. Contact us today to learn more.
Who can request a “Letter of dismissal” and when?
Missouri law limits the employees who can request a letter of dismissal. The employee must have worked for the employer for at least ninety (90) days. § 290.140 RSMo. The employer must employ seven (7) or more employees. Id.
Missouri law also imposes time requirements for making and fulfilling a request for a letter of dismissal. In particular, the employee must make the request “within a reasonable period of time” following the employee’s termination or voluntary quitting, “but not later than one year following the date the employee was discharged or voluntarily quit.” Id. Further, upon receipt of the request, the employer must “issue to such employee, within forty-five  days.” Id.
Content and Process
Missouri law sets forth specific rules on how dismissal letters are requested. The request must be written and submitted through “certified mail to the superintendent, manager or registered agent of the employer.” Id. The request must include “specific reference to the statute.” Id.
Missouri law also sets forth rules on what dismissal letters themselves must include. The dismissal letter provided by the employer in response must be “duly signed by such superintendent or manager.” Id. The dismissal letter must set forth “the nature and character of service rendered by such employee to such corporation and the duration thereof, and truly stating for what cause, if any, such employee was discharged or voluntarily quit such service.” Id.
Courts interpreting the law have expanded upon the meaning of these requirements. For example, a Missouri court has held that a statement that a discharge was due to “unsatisfactory work performance” was insufficient as a matter of law. See Gloria v. Univ. of Health Sciences, 713 S.W.2d 32, 33 (Mo. Ct. App. 1986) (“[t]he short statement ‘unsatisfactory work’ is too vague to constitute a cause for discharge under the statute”). On the other hand, a federal court has held that a service letter request signed only by an employee’s attorney—and not the employee—was not a valid request. See Zeman v. V.F. Factory Outlet, Inc., 911 F.2d 107, 109 (8th Cir. 1990).
Missouri law provides for recovery of damages in the event the dismissal letter statute is violated. In particular, the law states: “[a]ny corporation which violates the provisions of [the dismissal letter statute] shall be liable for compensatory but not punitive damages but in the event that the evidence establishes that the employer did not issue the requested letter, said employer may be liable for nominal and punitive damages; but not award of punitive damages under this section shall be based upon the content of any such letter.” § 290.140 RSMo.
Missouri courts have clarified how actual damages may be suffered in the context of a service letter violation. One Missouri Court has, for example, observed that actual damages must be proven by showing that the employee was denied employment or hindered in obtaining employment due to the absence or inadequacy of a service letter, that the position denied or hindered in obtaining was actually open, and the rate of pay of that position. See Gibson v. Hummel, 688 S.W.2d 4, 9 (Mo. Ct. App. 1985). Failing to prove that a prospective employer saw the dismissal letter and held it against the employee may preclude recovery of actual damages. See, e.g., id.; Prewitt v. Factory Motor Parts, Inc., 747 F. Supp. 560, 566-67 (W.D. Mo. 1990) (noting the employee may still be entitled to nominal damages for employer’s false statement(s) in a service letter).
If you have further questions or concerns regarding your legal rights or obligations in the context of a service letter or letter of dismissal request, contact Dolley Law, LLC by phone at (314) 645-4100 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.