Stehno v. Sprint Spectrum, L.P.

Decision Date14 February 2006
Docket NumberNo. SC 87023.,SC 87023.
Citation186 S.W.3d 247
PartiesJohn STEHNO, Respondent, v. SPRINT SPECTRUM, L.P., Appellant, and Amdocs, Ltd., Defendant.
CourtMissouri Supreme Court

Ann K. Covington, K. Lee Marshall, St, Louis, for appellant.

Elaine Drodge Koch, Mikah K. Story, Kansas City, for defendant.

Aaron N. Woods, Lisa C. Bower, Kansas City, for respondent.

MARY R. RUSSELL, Judge.

Sprint Spectrum, L.P., appeals a judgment granting John Stehno a new trial on his claim of tortious interference with a business expectancy. Sprint asserts that Stehno did not make a submissible case of tortious interference because he failed to prove: (1) he had a valid, reasonable business expectancy or (2) there was an absence of justification for Sprint's actions. This Court agrees and reverses the judgment.

I. Facts and Procedural History

As this appeal involves the sufficiency of evidence, a detailed explanation of the facts is necessary. Stehno was an employee of Modis, Inc., an information technology consulting company that provided temporary technical consultants to its clients. One of Modis's clients was Amdocs, a company specializing in developing billing software. Modis contracted to supply Amdocs with temporary consultants, including Stehno. Amdocs, in turn, contracted with Sprint to help it develop a billing system. As a result of this agreement, Amdocs assigned Stehno to work on the Sprint billing system as a database administrator (DBA). Stehno, however, remained at all times an employee of Modis. He had no contractual relationship with Amdocs or Sprint.

Before Modis hired him, Stehno worked as a temporary contract worker on other projects in Sprint's data management department. After having problems with other employees, Stehno told Jan Richert, a senior manager in the data management department, that he was leaving her department to work at Sprint Long Distance.

After his assignment at Sprint Long Distance expired, he asked his employer— another temporary employment agency— to contact Richert and see if she would be interested in him for an opening in her department. Richert responded that Stehno had not been satisfied working there before and that the environment had not changed. As such, the employment agency informed Stehno that Richert refused the offer to return to her department.

Shortly thereafter, Stehno was contacted by Modis about the possibility of working for Amdocs on the Sprint billing system project. He accepted the temporary position without informing Modis that Richert had recently rejected his offer to return to her department. A few days after Stehno began working at Sprint, Richert learned that he was working on the Sprint billing system project. She contacted his supervisors at Amdocs through a series of e-mails and telephone calls, expressing her concerns about the division of labor on the project and about Stehno specifically. Richert explained to Amdocs that Sprint was to provide the DBAs from her department and that there were four DBAs already assigned to the Sprint billing systems project. Amdocs employees were to be used as application developers and not DBAs.1 Regarding Stehno specifically, Richert informed Amdocs that, although his skill was commensurate with the average DBA in her department, he was "high maintenance" and a "magnet for conflict" and she did not recommend him for the project. She added that because he had already been onsite for four days, the decision on whether to terminate him should be Amdocs' and not hers.

Amdocs responded in two e-mails, the first stating: "Definitely we are not going to bring somebody that [Sprint] does not recommend"; the second stating: "Today would be [sic] John's last day in our office. It's AMDOCS decision. I do not want to keep people that you are uncomfortable with." After Amdocs terminated its relationship with Stehno, Modis fired him because it had no other assignments for him.

Stehno thereafter sued Sprint and Amdocs for tortious interference with a business expectancy. After trial, the jury returned verdicts for Amdocs and Sprint. Stehno moved for a new trial, and the court granted Stehno's motion as to Sprint, finding that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. After an opinion by the Court of Appeals, Western District, this Court granted transfer. Mo. Const. art. V, § 10. Sprint argues that the trial court erred in denying its motion for judgment as a matter of law and in granting Stehno's motion for a new trial.

II. Standard of Review

The circuit court has nearly unfettered discretion in deciding whether or not to grant a new trial on the ground that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence, "[a]nd its ruling upon that ground will not be disturbed, except in case of manifest abuse." Robinson v. Wampler, 389 S.W.2d 757, 760 (Mo.1965). As long as the plaintiff makes a submissible case, the court's grant of a new trial will generally not be disturbed. See id. at 759-60. It is only where there is a complete absence of probative fact to support the jury's conclusion that this Court will decide that the plaintiff did not make a submissible case. Doe v. TCI Cablevision, 110 S.W.3d 363, 369-70 (Mo. banc 2003).

A submissible case of tortious interference requires the plaintiff to adduce evidence of: (1) a valid business expectancy; (2) defendant's knowledge of the relationship; (3) a breach induced or caused by defendant's intentional interference; (4) absence of justification; and (5) damages. Nazeri v. Mo. Valley Coll., 860 S.W.2d 303, 316 (Mo. banc 1993). Sprint argues that Stehno did not present evidence at trial that, if believed, establish the first and fourth elements.

III. Valid Business Expectancy

Sprint argues that Stehno had no valid business expectancy in his continued employment on the Sprint project through Amdocs. The valid business expectancy requirement involves more than a mere subjective expectancy—it must be a reasonable expectancy of continued employment. See Bell v. May Dep't Stores Co., 6 S.W.3d 871, 877 (Mo. banc 1999). The plaintiff must have more than a "mere hope" of continued employment. See Misischia v. St. John's Mercy Med. Ctr., 30 S.W.3d 848, 863 (Mo.App.2000).

Stehno was a temporary contractor. While he may have had a subjective hope to have long-term employment on the Sprint project, both Amdocs and Sprint retained the right to end Stehno's assignment without even consulting him.

Amdocs' agreement with Modis stated that Amdocs could terminate a service order for any reason with seven days' written notice. The contract further stated that Amdocs could request that a contractor be removed immediately if it was dissatisfied with the contractor. Similarly Sprint's agreement with Amdocs provided that Sprint retained "the right at any time to reasonably require removal of a Subcontractor and/or any of a Subcontractor's personnel ... [with] reasonable prior notice to Amdocs, specifying the reasons for such removal, with an opportunity to cure (except in cases of gross negligence or intentional misconduct) within such notice period."

A business expectancy that is contrary to the terms of a contract on which the expectancy depends is unreasonable.2 See Rhodes Eng'g Co. v. Pub. Water Supply Dist. No. 1, 128 S.W.3d 550 (Mo.App. 2004); Hartbarger v. Burdeau Real Estate Co., 741 S.W.2d 309 (Mo.App.1987).

Stehno argues that although he was a temporary contractor, subject to removal at any time by either Sprint or Amdocs under their respective contracts, that is not dispositive. He is correct that his business expectancy need not be based on an existing contract. Eib v. Fed. Reserve Bank of Kansas City, 633 S.W.2d 432, 435 (Mo.App.1982). A probable future business relationship that gives rise to a reasonable expectancy of financial benefit is enough. Id. at 435-36. As such, Stehno argues his employment at-will status does not preclude a valid business expectancy. His argument does have some support in a case from the court of appeals. See, e.g., Hensen v. Truman Med. Ctr., 62 S.W.3d 549, 553 (Mo.App.2001).

Stehno asserts that the facts of this case are analogous to those in Hensen. Hensen worked directly for a company called REN. Id. at 551. He, like Stehno, was assigned to work for another employer— Truman Medical Center—that formerly employed him directly. Id. Because of some alleged misconduct during his assignment, Truman refused to allow Hensen to return to work there under any condition. Id. at 551-52. Hensen sued Truman for tortious interference with his business expectancy, and the court of appeals held that he made a submissible case. Id. at 554. Specifically, the court stated that although Truman enjoyed much latitude in terminating him when he was a Truman employee, "[w]hen Hansen assumed employment with REN—albeit [as] an at-will employee for REN—Truman became obligated not to interfere unjustifiably with any of Hensen's business expectancies in his new employment relation with REN." Id.

Although it is facially similar, Hensen differs from the present case in two notable aspects. First, Hensen was not a temporary contractor, but was assigned to work at Truman indefinitely in a specific assignment.3 Id. at 551. Second, Hensen involved an employer that retained the right to transfer its employees to a different employment assignment. It does not, however, address the situation where the alleged interferer retains a contractual right to remove the employee at any time as in this case. Because of the temporary nature of Stehno's assignment and the contractual provisions allowing either Sprint or Amdocs to remove...

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