In the employment area, employers, co-employees and their lawyers need to be aware of the multitude of claims potentially available to a disgruntled employee following the termination of his employment. The dissatisfied employee may bring action against her former employer and/or co-employees sounding in common law tort or contract claims or may proceed under state and/or federal statutes. Once litigation is commenced documents and conversations that were previously given little thought by the employer or co-worker become central to the parties versions of the circumstances of the termination of plaintiff's employment.
In a case recently tried by this office, an apparently undisputed resignation of a dissatisfied professional employee, developed into a protracted and expensive litigation. The documents which the parties produced in the pre-trial phase of this case filled over eight file cabinets. The plaintiff brought six causes of action against her former employer, a hospital, and her supervisor. The defendants prevailed on all counts.
The plaintiff in this case was employed by a hospital as a neuropathologist. The defendant doctor was the plaintiff's supervisor and chief of the hospital's pathology department. The plaintiff had been associated with the hospital over ten years and had been director of the its neuropathology training program for two years. The defendant doctor had been chief of the pathology department for nearly twelve years. The defendant doctor relieved plaintiff of her duties as director of the neuropathology training program. One month later, plaintiff resigned her position with the hospital.
Leading up to plaintiff's resignation, there were many conversations and memoranda between plaintiff, the defendant doctor and many members of the administration of the hospital. The plaintiff had been unhappy for some time over her lack of control over and the management of the hospital's neuropathology division. Several months before the plaintiff's resignation, the defendant doctor attempted to address the her concerns in a brief memorandum. The memorandum became the focal point for the plaintiff's litigation. The defendant doctor had written in the memorandum that the document was not a contract and that it was to be construed merely as an attempt to start working out the problems perceived by plaintiff in the department. One specific problem of concern to plaintiff was the departure of two technicians from her division, one of whom had held the title of supervisor. Defendant doctor informed plaintiff in the memorandum at issue that she intended to hire two technicians for the division, one of which would have supervisory capabilities. However, due to an industry-wide well-known shortage of technicians, the hospital was unable to hire the technicians. Three technicians were interviewed for the position, but the plaintiff found none acceptable. Following the writing of the memorandum, many managerial conflicts, staffing problems and personality problems arose in relation to the plaintiff and the neuropathology program. It was these problems which led the defendant doctor, in conjunction with the several members of the administration of the hospital, to relieve plaintiff of her duties as director of the neuropathology program. The plaintiff then resigned her position and completely severed her relationship with the hospital. During the course of the ensuing litigation, the plaintiff denied that she had resigned and claimed that she had in effect been terminated by the hospital.
Out of what appeared on the surface to be rather typical staffing and personality problems arose complex litigation and allegations of breach of contract, tortious interference with employment, deceit and fraudulent misrepresentation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, wrongful termination and breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing.
After a lengthy discovery process, the plaintiff's claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress was dismissed by the court upon defendants' motion for summary judgment. The plaintiff, thereafter, amended her complaint to include claims for wrongful termination and breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Defendants once again moved for summary judgment, and the court granted it on every count but one, deceit and fraudulent misrepresentation. This one remaining count resulted in a seven day trial ending in judgment for defendants. Plaintiff has appealed the judgments entered on each count except intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The court's decisions in rendering summary judgment in this case focused greatly on the documents produced during the pre-trial discovery process. This case demonstrates that documentation of the events surrounding an employment decision, made contemporaneously with the decision, very often prove to be the best source for the courts to find and defendants to prove a legitimate rational for a disputed employment decision. While the potential claims that can be brought by a disgruntled employee are many, and the elements of each such claim numerous, if a defendant is able to point to documentation of a legitimate rational reason for the employment decision made, the defendant stands a better chance of succeeding both at summary judgment and at trial should litigation ensue.
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