Harrell v. Reynolds Metals Co.

Decision Date19 September 1986
Citation495 So.2d 1381
Parties106 Lab.Cas. P 55,704 L.D. "Bubba" HARRELL v. REYNOLDS METALS COMPANY, et al. 85-157.
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

William K. Hewlett, James Marks of Hewlett, Black & Marks, Tuscumbia, for appellant.

C.V. Stelzenmuller, David D. Dowd III of Thomas, Taliaferro, Forman, Burr & Murray, Birmingham, for appellees.

HOUSTON, Justice.

This action was commenced on December 30, 1983, when L.D. "Bubba" Harrell and his wife Julia R. Harrell filed their four-count complaint naming as defendants Reynolds Metals Company 1 and five individuals, all of whom were employees of Reynolds: Martin Hardy, Jr.; Hilton Tirey; Paul Webb; Neal Bishop; and Bob Andreas.

In count one of the complaint, L.D. Harrell alleged that defendants had defrauded him at some point prior to June 1, 1980, by falsely promising to provide him with lifetime employment with Reynolds.

L.D. Harrell alleged in count two of the complaint that defendants entered into a contract of lifetime employment with him on or about June 1, 1980, and that the defendants breached that contract of lifetime employment by discharging him from his employment with Reynolds on or about January 10, 1983.

He alleged in count three that defendants committed outrageous conduct by falsely representing to him he would have a lifetime or permanent employment with Reynolds and then terminating him without justifiable cause.

In count four of his complaint, he alleged that defendants engaged in a conspiracy to defraud him by promising him lifetime employment and inducing him to leave his job with his prior employer, Union Carbide Corporation.

Additionally, Julia R. Harrell alleged that she had been caused to suffer emotional distress and the loss of consortium and companionship of her husband. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, and the trial court dismissed count four (conspiracy) as to all defendants, the consortium claim as to all defendants, and count two (breach of contract) as to the individual defendants.

As to the remaining claims, defendants answered by making a general denial and by raising the following defenses: that fraud had not been pleaded with the requisite specificity; that the statute of limitations barred the actions based on fraud and outrageous conduct; that L.D. Harrell was an employee at will; and that his work for Reynolds was unsatisfactory and he was therefore terminated for a just cause.

Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, with accompanying affidavits. Plaintiff L.D. Harrell amended to add three additional counts alleging that defendants had intentionally interfered with his contractual relations (count five) and business relations (count six) with Reynolds, and alleging that they had wantonly breached his employment contract with Reynolds (count seven). Defendants amended their motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted summary judgment for all defendants as to all counts. Plaintiff L.D. Harrell then filed a Rule 59(e), Ala.R.Civ.P., motion to alter, amend, or vacate the judgment, which was denied. He appealed. Julia R. Harrell did not appeal the dismissal of her consortium claim. Because this appeal concerns only L.D. Harrell, we shall hereinafter refer to him as "plaintiff" or "the plaintiff."

The standard of review of a summary judgment for the defendant based on the ground that plaintiff has failed to prove a cause of action is whether plaintiff has offered some evidence as to every element of the cause of action. Summary judgment for the defendant in such a case is proper only when it clearly appears, with no genuine issue as to any material fact, that there is no evidence as to an essential element of the cause of action. See Rule 56(c), Ala.R.Civ.P. In determining whether there is any evidence of every element of a cause of action, this Court must review the record in a light most favorable to the plaintiff and resolve all reasonable doubts against the defendant. Autrey v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Alabama, 481 So.2d 345 (Ala.1985); Burt v. Commercial Union Insurance Co., 489 So.2d 547 (Ala.1986); Bardin v. Jones, 371 So.2d 23 (Ala.1979).

The evidence, when reviewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, while resolving all reasonable doubts against the defendants, is as follows: Plaintiff was a casualty of Alabama's economic descent. He had been employed at Union Carbide Corporation's plant in Sheffield, Alabama, as a maintenance foreman for several years prior to the closing of that plant. Union Carbide offered plaintiff a chance to transfer to a Union Carbide plant in West Virginia without a cut in pay or loss of pension or seniority status. Plaintiff visited that plant and was interviewed for a job there, but he decided not to accept it. His employment with Union Carbide terminated on May 31, 1980.

On March 21, 1980, plaintiff submitted employment applications to Reynolds' Alabama Reclamation Plant in Sheffield for two job positions: maintenance supervisor and maintenance mechanic. On that day he did not talk with any of the defendants. He had no contact with anyone from Reynolds from March 21, until a few days before May 8, 1980, when he received a telephone call from defendant Webb. Webb invited plaintiff to a job interview at the Reclamation Plant; and on or about May 8, 1980, defendants Webb and Tirey interviewed plaintiff at that plant. Webb did most of the talking during the interview. The following is the pertinent part of plaintiff's testimony about what transpired:

"I was told if I was offered a job, in the interview with Mr. Webb when he was explaining, you know, the evaluation system and everything; I was give[n] a history of the Plant and there hadn't been any layoffs in the Maintenance Department in the history of the Plant and that it would be a permanent job, that I wasn't just coming over for--they needed a man to fill a vacancy, I wasn't being hired on a temporary basis, I was receiving, that they were seeking somebody for a permanent job."

Plaintiff was not offered a job during that interview. Shortly after the interview, Webb talked with the plaintiff by telephone and offered plaintiff a job as maintenance supervisor with a monthly salary of $2,040, conditioned upon plaintiff's passing a physical examination. During this conversation, plaintiff accepted the job offer. On or about May 28, 1980, plaintiff passed the physical examination. Plaintiff later met with Anna Dean Means, an employee of Reynolds, and signed several documents in her presence; none of the individual defendants was present. Ms. Means in her affidavit testified that it was her unvarying practice to instruct each new salaried employee, such as plaintiff, to read two of the documents--one entitled "Corporate Policy-Conflict of Interest" and the other entitled "Salary Employment Notification"--before signing them. After plaintiff signed the documents, Ms. Means took the document entitled "Salary Employment Notification" to defendant Hardy, who signed it on behalf of Reynolds. At some point before plaintiff signed the "Salary Employment Notification," he had a conversation with defendant Hardy, during which Hardy told plaintiff when to come to work and to whom he should report. They also discussed various plant safety rules, plaintiff's rate of pay, plaintiff's test results, and the history of the Reclamation Plant. Additionally, Hardy told plaintiff that his future job would be permanent. Hardy did not use the word "lifetime" in discussing plaintiff's future job.

The "Salary Employment Notification" that plaintiff signed after his conversation with Hardy is a one-page form, which begins:

"1. EMPLOYMENT CONTRACT (to be signed by the Company and the Employee) A. Reynolds Metals Company, Alabama Reclamation Plant, Employer, hereby employs Leslie D. Harrell, Employee and agrees to pay employee at the rate of $2,040.00 per month, Payable in semi-mo. installments. If Employee is subject to overtime payments, the rate is compensation for all hours worked up to forty hours per week, exclusive of overtime compensation. Any increase or decrease of the rate of compensation made after the effective date of this contract shall affect this contract only in respect to such a rate of compensation, all other terms and conditions hereof remaining the same: and in this respect, it is understood and agreed by both parties that this contract is to continue in force at all times during Employee's employment by Employer, notwithstanding temporary lapses of employment, or term, or change of duties, or contracts supplemental hereto. [Subparagraphs (1), (2), and (3) of Paragraph A are not pertinent to the issues in this case; they involve the employee's inventions and his agreement to keep trade secrets confidential.]

"B. Except for Paragraphs (1), (2) and (3) hereof, which shall continue in force and effect, either party may terminate the remainder of this contract at any time and compensation shall be computed and paid at the above rate to the date of termination and no more.

"Dated at Sheffield, Alabama this 28th day of May, 1980 Date effective 1980-06-01."

This is followed by the signatures.

Following the signatures is a section entitled "DESCRIBE EMPLOYEE'S DUTIES." At the bottom of this form there is a place to check "Permanent" or "Temporary." The word "Permanent" was checked.

The plaintiff testified that his job performance was satisfactory or above and denied the existence of any cause for the termination of his employment. He denied any involvement with an incident involving the unauthorized leave of an employee who was alleged to have been intoxicated while on the job. Hardy testified that this incident was a factor in or precipitated the original request for plaintiff's resignation. Defendants Andreas, Bishop, and Hardy made the decision on January 5, 1983, to terminate plaintiff. Plaintiff refused to resign when his resignation was asked for, and he was terminated on January 5,...

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