Crawford County v. Jones

Citation232 S.W.3d 433
Decision Date16 March 2006
Docket NumberNo. 05-680.,05-680.
PartiesCRAWFORD COUNTY, Arkansas, Appellant/Cross-Appellee, v. Dottie JONES, Appellee/Cross-Appellant.
CourtSupreme Court of Arkansas

Bachelor & Newell, by: C. Burt Newell and Angela R. Echols, Hot Springs, for appellant.

The Baker Law Firm, PLLC, by: Rinda Baker, Alma, for appellee.

DONALD L. CORBIN, Justice.

Appellant Crawford County, Arkansas, appeals a jury verdict awarding Appellee Dottie Jones damages for her breach-of-contract claim. On appeal, the County argues that the jury's verdict was against the preponderance of the evidence. Jones cross-appeals, arguing that the trial court erred in granting the County's motion for directed verdict on her claims for violation of the Arkansas Whistle-Blower Act, codified at Ark.Code Ann. §§ 21-1-601-609 (Repl.1999 & Supp.2003), and outrage. She also asserts that it was error for the trial court to deny her posttrial motion for attorney's fees. This case is before us on a petition for review from a decision of the Arkansas Court of Appeals in Crawford County v. Jones, 91 Ark.App. 161, 209 S.W.3d 381 (2005). We granted the petition for review pursuant to Ark. Sup.Ct. R. 2-4(c)(iii). Accordingly, we consider the case as though it had been originally filed in this court. Cox v. Miller, 363 Ark. 54, 210 S.W.3d 842 (2005); Pifer v. Single Source Transp., 347 Ark. 851, 69 S.W.3d 1 (2002). We affirm on direct appeal and affirm in part, reverse in part on cross-appeal.

Jones was hired as an employee of the Crawford County Assessor's Office in 1979 and became an appraiser in that office in 1985. In 1999, Crawford County contracted with Accurate Mapping Company ("AMC"), to conduct reappraisals required under Act 1185 of 1999.1 Under the contract, AMC agreed to use appraisers from the Assessor's office. The appraisers were compensated by the County, but AMC reimbursed the County for the cost of the appraisers' salaries and benefits. Additionally, the contract provided that if AMC had employment issues with any of the field appraisers that would warrant termination, AMC was to submit to the Assessor written notification of the intent to dismiss and allow ten working days for the appraiser to correct any deficiencies. If the deficiencies were not corrected, the appraiser would be turned back to the County.

On March 17, 2000, Jones received a letter notifying her that her performance was deficient. Thereafter, Lezlie Williamson, the project manager for AMC, wrote another letter indicating that Jones's work performance had improved; however, subsequent problems arose, and on June 27, 2000, Carolyn Walker, owner of AMC, notified Dianna Faucher, Crawford County Assessor, that AMC was terminating its relationship with Jones because of her inadequate job performance. Faucher, in turn, notified Jones by telephone that she could no longer work for AMC and also that there was no spot available for her in the Assessor's office. Jones then requested a grievance hearing.

A grievance hearing was held on July 31, 2000, before the Crawford County Quorum Court, sitting as the grievance committee. Upon reviewing the testimony and exhibits, the committee ordered that Jones be reinstated to her position at the Assessor's office. Faucher, however, stated that she did not have any available position for Jones and notified her, by letter, on August 2, 2000, that she was being laid off, effective August 4, 2000, in accordance with the terms of the Crawford County Employee Handbook. Jones then requested a second grievance hearing, but her request was denied in a letter written by quorum court member and chairman of the grievance committee, Art Richmond. In his letter, Richmond stated that the employee handbook did not provide for a grievance hearing following a layoff.

Jones filed suit in the Crawford County Circuit Court against the County and Faucher, in her individual capacity, as well as her capacity as Assessor.2 In her complaint, Jones alleged causes of action for breach of contract and wrongful termination, violation of the Arkansas Whistle-Blower Act, and outrage.

A jury trial was held on August 26, 28-29, 2003. At the conclusion of Jones's case, the County moved for a directed verdict on all claims. The trial court granted the motion with regard to her claim under the Whistle-Blower Act and her claim for outrage but submitted the claim for breach of contract to the jury. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Jones and awarded her damages in the amount of $149,370.00. Following the court's entry of judgment, the County filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict ("JNOV"), arguing that the jury's verdict was against the preponderance of the evidence. The motion was denied, as was a motion filed by Jones requesting an award of attorney's fees.

The County timely appealed the jury's verdict to the court of appeals, arguing that there was no evidence that the County terminated Jones in violation of the employee handbook. Specifically, the County argued that it, through its grievance committee, determined that Jones should be reinstated to the Assessor's office but that Faucher, acting in her individual capacity and without consulting any County official, violated the handbook in subsequently laying off Jones.

Jones cross-appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in granting the County's motion for directed verdict on the claims for violation of the Whistle-Blower Act and outrage. The court of appeals affirmed on direct appeal, concluding that Faucher could only terminate Jones in her capacity as Assessor. Jones, 91 Ark.App. 161, 209 S.W.3d 381. The court of appeals further reasoned that a county is bound by the actions of its lawfully constituted officers. In addition, the court of appeals affirmed the order of the trial court directing a verdict on the outrage claim and denying the motion for attorney's fees. Id. It reversed, however, the order directing a verdict on the claim under the Whistle-Blower Act. In so doing, the court of appeals held that the directed verdict could not be sustained on the premise that Jones did not report the wrongdoing to an "appropriate authority." Id. at 173, 209 S.W.3d at 390-391.

Following the court of appeals' decision, the County petitioned this court for review, arguing that the court of appeals erred in holding that the County could be held liable for Faucher's actions. The County further argued that the court of appeals misinterpreted the United States Supreme Court decision in Monell v. Department of Social Servs. of the City of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978). In addition, the County argued that the court misinterpreted the whistle-blower statute and, thus, erred in reversing the trial court's grant of the directed verdict.

Our standard of review of the denial of a motion for directed verdict is whether the jury's verdict is supported by substantial evidence. Stewart Title Guar. Co. v. American Abstract & Title Co., 363 Ark. 530, 215 S.W.3d 596 (2005); Ethyl Corp. v. Johnson, 345 Ark. 476, 49 S.W.3d 644 (2001). Similarly, in reviewing the denial of a motion for JNOV, we will reverse only if there is no substantial evidence to support the jury's verdict, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. Substantial evidence is that which goes beyond suspicion or conjecture and is sufficient to compel a conclusion one way or the other. Id. It is not this court's place to try issues of fact; rather, this court simply reviews the record for substantial evidence to support the jury's verdict. Id. In determining whether there is substantial evidence, we view the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising therefrom in the light most favorable to the party on whose behalf judgment was entered. Id.

I. Direct Appeal

a. Jury Verdict

On appeal, the County argues that the jury's verdict was not supported by substantial evidence. Specifically, the County avers that it properly determined that Jones should be reinstated but that Faucher, acting independently and without consulting any County official, determined that she did not have a job for Jones. Thus, according to the County, Faucher's actions in her individual capacity cannot be imputed to the County. Jones counters that there was sufficient evidence supporting the jury's verdict as she presented proof that Faucher did not follow the employee handbook in laying off Jones and that it was proper to impute liability to the County for Faucher's actions.

We begin our analysis by determining whether there was substantial evidence to support the jury's verdict that Jones was wrongfully discharged. This court has stated the general rule that "when the term of employment in a contract is left to the discretion of either party, or left indefinite, or terminable by either party, either party may put an end to the relationship at will and without cause." Marine Servs. Unlimited, Inc. v. Rakes, 323 Ark. 757, 763, 918 S.W.2d 132, 134-35 (1996) (quoting City of Green Forest v. Morse, 316 Ark. 540, 546, 873 S.W.2d 155, 158 (1994)). Stated another way, an employer may terminate the employment of an at-will employee without cause. See Faulkner v. Arkansas Children's Hosp., 347 Ark. 941, 69 S.W.3d 393 (2002); Crain Indus., Inc. v. Cass, 305 Ark. 566, 810 S.W.2d 910 (1991); Gladden v. Arkansas Children's Hosp., 292 Ark. 130, 728 S.W.2d 501 (1987). There are two basic exceptions to the at-will doctrine: (1) where an employee relies upon a personnel manual that contains an express provision against termination except for cause; and (2) where the employment agreement contains a provision that the employee will not be discharged except for cause, even if the agreement has an unspecified term. Id.; see also Ball v. Arkansas Dep't of Community Punishment, 340 Ark. 424, 10 S.W.3d 873 (2000).

The jury was instructed in this case that in order for Jones to prevail on her claim for wrongful discharge, she must...

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