54 N.Y.2d 185, Smith v. Russell Sage College

Citation:54 N.Y.2d 185, 445 N.Y.S.2d 68
Party Name:Smith v. Russell Sage College
Case Date:November 19, 1981
Court:New York Court of Appeals
 
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Page 185

54 N.Y.2d 185

445 N.Y.S.2d 68

Russell J. SMITH, Appellant,

v.

RUSSELL SAGE COLLEGE, Respondent.

New York Court of Appeals

November 19, 1981.

Russell J. Smith, appellant pro se.

Gerald H. Katzman, Troy, for respondent.

OPINION OF THE COURT

FUCHSBERG, Judge.

In the end, testing the applicability of res judicata by transactional analysis of the claims presented in plaintiff's two successive suits against the defendant, the question here is whether dismissal of the initial one on Statute of Frauds and Statute of Limitations grounds must be said to have extinguished the subsequent one as well. We hold that it must.

The issue comes to us in a contextually attenuated legal and factual framework. As culled from the miscellany of pleadings and motion papers which constitute the record [445 N.Y.S.2d 69] before us, the genesis of the controversy between the parties was plaintiff Russell J. Smith's appointment in June, 1967, first as assistant to the dean and shortly thereafter as assistant dean, at defendant Russell Sage College's Junior College of Albany. The arrangements for his engagement were negotiated orally between Smith and the then president of Russell Sage, Lewis A. Froman. Not without dispute, Smith claims that, as part of their agreement, President Froman promised that, if the time ever came when the institution no longer could support a full-time assistant dean, a teaching position would always be open to him. However, though plaintiff's faculty appointments from 1971 on would be memorialized by annual letters, none of these referred in any way to the existence of tenure in general or the claimed undertaking in particular.

After Smith joined Russell Sage, so far as relevant here, things appear to have remained static until July 1, 1973, a date when Charles U. Walker, who had succeeded Froman as president some three years earlier, put into effect an administrative plan which called for the abolition of the assistant deanship post. This was no surprise to Smith. Both sides agree that, in February, 1972, Walker informed him that this was in the offing, and that Smith thereupon advised Walker of the oral job security stipulation he claims to have entered into with Froman. To this, according to Smith's examination before trial, Walker is said to have rejoined, "in essence, then you have a lifetime agreement", a comment to which Smith, who in his deposition was to characterize it as "baiting", chose not to reply. 1 Whatever the accuracy of this opinion, the fact is that, before the 1973-1974 college year was underway, Walker wrote to Froman to inquire as to the latter's "understanding of the agreement", to which Froman wrote back to say, "What I probably said was something to the effect that if he made good (a common expression of mine), there might be the opportunity to teach if the administrative position didn't work out." (Emphasis in the original.) In any event, as Smith was to describe it, defendant's failure to tender him a teaching assignment caused him "to accept employment under duress * * * as a librarian and administrative assistant" for the ensuing year, only to be terminated entirely at its conclusion on June 30, 1974.

Against this background, Smith initially brought suit against the college in August, 1975. Spread discursively over eight causes of action, the allegations of his complaint, read liberally, may be said to have fallen into but two categories. The first of these, centering on the Walker-Froman letter exchange, was tortious in character; it charged that Walker's letter to Froman had "falsely and fraudulently" misrepresented Smith's conversation with Walker in stating that Walker had told Smith that he would abide only by a written agreement, that Walker had been negligent in accepting Froman's letter at face value, that Walker had refused to give Smith access to Froman's letter for six months, and that these had all been part of a design by Walker to "maliciously, deliberately, intentionally and deceitfully induce" the college's board of trustees to relieve Smith of his position. The gist of the second category, sounding essentially in contract, was that the college was estopped from resisting enforcement of the oral agreement because Smith, expecting that it would be honored, had resigned his previous position as a high school teacher, had taken graduate courses towards a master's degree and had foregone any attempt to obtain other employment in the favorable job market which he alleges prevailed during the years preceding his severance from Russell Sage. All of this, plaintiff [445 N.Y.S.2d 70] further pleaded, damaged his professional reputation, impaired his ability to obtain other employment and, therefore, entitled him to a declaration that the oral agreement was in force, to an order reinstating him and to a recovery for wages lost starting with July 1, 1974, the last presumably as part of a demand for $150,000 as special damages and $350,000 as punitive damages.

After a litigation course whose other details are not pertinent for present purposes, Special Term, treating the college's motion to dismiss as one for summary judgment (see Siegel, Practice Commentaries, McKinney's Cons.Laws of N.Y., Book 7B, CPLR 3211:44, p. 48), concluded that so much of the suit as was predicated on the oral agreement was rendered unenforceable by the Statute of Frauds (General Obligations Law, § 5-701, subd. a, par. 1) and that the balance was barred by the one-year Statute of Limitations prescribed by CPLR 215 (subd. 3). This decision was handed down in December, 1977. Though plaintiff moved unsuccessfully to vacate the formal order of dismissal which followed, no appeal was ever taken.

Instead, plaintiff commenced the present action in December, 1978. 2 Designating it one "for fraud perpetrated upon plaintiff by Charles U. Walker in his capacity of president", his complaint now focused on two scanty excerpts from...

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