Phillips v. Dickinson Management, Inc., 980012

Decision Date10 June 1998
Docket NumberNo. 980012,980012
Citation580 N.W.2d 148
Parties14 IER Cases 184, 1998 ND 123 Gary J. PHILLIPS, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. DICKINSON MANAGEMENT, INC., a North Dakota Corporation, Defendant and Appellant. Civil
CourtNorth Dakota Supreme Court

Eugene F. Buresh, of Ficek & Buresh, P.C., for plaintiff and appellee.

Robert O. Wefald, Bismarck, for defendant and appellant.

MARING, Justice.

¶1 Dickinson Management, Inc., the corporate manager of the Hospitality Inn of Dickinson (Hospitality Inn), appealed from a judgment awarding Gary Phillips damages for wrongful termination of his employment. We hold the jury's finding Phillips was not an atwill employee is unsupported by substantial evidence. We, therefore, reverse and remand for entry of judgment in favor of the Hospitality Inn.

¶2 In December 1993, Phillips was hired to work as a bartender for the Hospitality Inn. Phillips performed his job very well for about two years. Phillips' temperament suddenly changed. He became withdrawn, and his work became unacceptable to his employer. The evidence shows Phillips was suffering from clinical depression and also had difficulty coping with an infatuation he developed for the Hospitality Inn's bar manager.

¶3 On February 14, 1996, the Hospitality Inn sent Phillips a letter placing him on an indefinite unpaid leave of absence and telling him he would have to seek professional counseling "to consider bringing you back to work." The letter stated Phillips could return to work "[i]f you satisfy our stipulations" and provide "written confirmation from your counselor that these issues are being addressed to a satisfactory conclusion." Phillips received counseling, and on March 25, 1996, sent the Hospitality Inn a letter saying he had addressed the behavioral concerns and was ready to return to work. The Hospitality Inn responded by letter on March 27, 1996, informing Phillips his employment was being terminated immediately.

¶4 Phillips brought this action seeking damages for wrongful termination. At the close of the case, the Hospitality Inn moved for a judgment n.o.v., claiming there was insufficient evidence for the jury to find Phillips had a specified term employment. The trial court denied the motion. The jury found Phillips was wrongfully terminated and awarded him damages of $27,338.42. The Hospitality Inn appealed.

¶5 On appeal the Hospitality Inn asserts Phillips was an atwill employee whose job could be terminated without cause. It argues the special verdict, finding Phillips was employed for a specified term, is not supported by substantial evidence. In determining whether there is sufficient evidence to create an issue of fact, and hence whether the trial court should grant a judgment n.o.v., the court must determine whether the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is made, leads to one conclusion about which there can be no reasonable difference of opinion. Hector v. Metro Centers, Inc., 498 N.W.2d 113, 119 (N.D.1993); Okken v. Okken, 325 N.W.2d 264, 267 (N.D.1982).

¶6 We uphold special verdicts on appeal whenever possible and set aside a jury's special verdict only if it is perverse and clearly contrary to the evidence. Fontes v. Dixon, 544 N.W.2d 869, 871 (N.D.1996). Our review of fact questions tried to a jury is limited to determining if there is substantial evidence to support the verdict. Dewey v. Lutz, 462 N.W.2d 435, 439 (N.D.1990). We view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, and it is only when reasonable people can reach but one conclusion upon review of the issues that the evidence becomes a question of law for the court. Id.

¶7 In North Dakota employment without a definite term is presumed to be at will. Osterman-Levitt v. MedQuest, Inc., 513 N.W.2d 70, 72 (N.D.1994). The employment-at-will doctrine is codified at N.D.C.C. § 34-03-01, which provides "[a]n employment having no specified term may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other, except when otherwise provided by this title." In an at-will employment the employer can terminate the employee with or without cause. Bykonen v. United Hospital, 479 N.W.2d 140, 141 (N.D.1992).

¶8 Phillips testified he was told during the job interview he was being hired for a permanent position and "as long as you want the job, it's yours." Assuming those statements were made to Phillips as he testified, they do not overcome the presumption of at-will employment. See Hillesland v. Federal Land Bank Ass'n, 407 N.W.2d 206, 211 (N.D.1987) (employee's understanding he had "a contract for permanent, lifetime employment" did not raise a material factual issue his employment was for a specified term rather than at-will employment).

¶9 The employment application, which Phillips signed, states:

I understand and agree that, if hired, my employment is for no definite period and may, regardless of the date of payment of my wages and salary, be terminated at any time without any prior notice.

¶10 The Hospitality Inn's employee handbook, which was given to and also signed by...

To continue reading

Request your trial
4 cases
  • Rodenburg v. FARGO MOORHEAD YMCA
    • United States
    • North Dakota Supreme Court
    • July 23, 2001
    ...verdicts whenever possible and set aside a special verdict only if it is perverse and clearly contrary to the evidence. Phillips v. Dickinson Mgmt., Inc., 1998 ND 123, ¶ 6, 580 N.W.2d 148. In reviewing a jury's findings, "we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict and d......
  • Jose v. Norwest Bank North Dakota, NA
    • United States
    • North Dakota Supreme Court
    • August 30, 1999
    ...by this title." In an at-will employment situation, the employer can terminate the employee with or without cause. Phillips v. Dickinson Management, Inc., 1998 ND 123, ¶ 7, 580 N.W.2d [¶ 11] The parties by contract can overcome the at-will presumption and create enforceable employment right......
  • Humann v. Kem Elec. Co-Op., Inc.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of North Dakota
    • August 29, 2006
    ...under North Dakota law that employment without a definite term is presumed to be at will. See Phillips v. Dickinson Management, Inc., 580 N.W.2d 148, 150 (N.D.1998). The employment-at-will doctrine is codified at Section 34-03-01 of the North Dakota Century Code which provides as follows: A......
  • City of Grand Forks v. Hendon/Ddrc/Bp, LLC
    • United States
    • North Dakota Supreme Court
    • June 1, 2006
    ...ND 132, ¶ 11, 682 N.W.2d 738; Rodenburg v. Fargo-Moorhead Young Men's Christian Ass'n, 2001 ND 139, ¶ 7, 632 N.W.2d 407; Phillips v. Dickinson Mgmt., Inc., 1998 ND 123, ¶ 6, 580 N.W.2d 148. In reviewing a jury's findings of fact, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdi......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT