Trembly v. Mrs. Fields Cookies, 930635-CA

CourtCourt of Appeals of Utah
Citation884 P.2d 1306
Docket NumberNo. 930635-CA,930635-CA
PartiesJoe D. TREMBLY, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. MRS. FIELDS COOKIES, Defendant and Appellee.
Decision Date10 November 1994

Russell C. Fericks (Argued), Nathan R. Hyde, Gerald J. Lallatin, Richards, Brandt, Miller & Nelson, Salt Lake City, for appellant.

Randall N. Skanchy, Deno G. Himonas (Argued), Jones, Waldo, Holbrook & McDonough, Salt Lake City, for appellee.



DAVIS, Judge:

Plaintiff Joe D. Trembly appeals the trial court's consideration of defendant Mrs. Fields Cookies's (Mrs. Fields) motion for relief from an earlier denial of Mrs. Fields's motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion and, pursuant to the relief requested, granted summary judgment in favor of Mrs. Fields, concluding that the undisputed facts established as a matter of law that Trembly was an at-will employee of Mrs. Fields. We affirm.


Trembly was employed with Mrs. Fields in both staff and managerial positions from November 26, 1986 until his termination on March 13, 1990. When Trembly applied for a position with Mrs. Fields, he signed an application for employment, at the top of which was the declaration that "[a]ll employees of [Mrs. Fields] are 'at-will' employees subject to termination at anytime [sic] with or without cause." Immediately above Trembly's signature on the application is the statement "I [Trembly] understand and agree that my employment is for no definite period and may ... be terminated at any time without any previous notice."

Several oral statements were made to Trembly concerning Mrs. Fields's disciplinary and termination policies. During Trembly's initial interview with Mitchell Dorin, Mrs. Fields's Regional Director of Operations, Dorin informed Trembly that he (Trembly) would be allowed "X amount of mistakes" and that certain stages of discipline would be followed before he would be "disciplined" (terminated). Later in Trembly's employment with Mrs. Fields, Cindy Reisner, Mrs. Fields's Director of Personnel, told Trembly that, as district manager, he could not fire anyone at Mrs. Fields without just cause.

In training videos, Randy Fields, Mrs. Fields's Chairman, stated that Mrs. Fields treats its people fairly and that a Mrs. Fields employee "will not be terminated for things unless they've been ... completely investigated fairly." Randy Fields also said that "the values of the company were more important than the training manual and that first and foremost is fair treatment of employees." The training videos were intended for all employees.

During Trembly's tenure at Mrs. Fields, a policy and procedure manual was in place. The policy and procedure manual was replete with references to the at-will nature of each individual's employment status. In November 1989, an Employee Handbook (handbook) was distributed, which, by its terms, superseded all prior handbooks, manuals, policies and procedures issued by Mrs. Fields. The handbook was distributed after the oral statements were made to Trembly by Dorin and Reisner, and after the Randy Fields's video was distributed.

The handbook provides:

This handbook is provided as a guide which you may use to familiarize yourself with [Mrs. Fields]. It is provided and is intended only as a helpful guide. It does not constitute, nor should it be construed to constitute an agreement or contract of employment, express or implied, or as a promise of treatment in any particular manner in any given situation. This handbook states only general [Mrs. Fields's] guidelines.

The handbook's disciplinary process includes the following reservation:

[Mrs. Fields] is an "at-will" employer which means that any and all team members are subject to termination at anytime [sic] with or without cause. Although we generally will follow a disciplinary process because we are an at-will employer, 1 [Mrs. Fields] reserves the right to terminate a team member immediately.

The handbook further states that Mrs. Fields will "generally follow[ ] a progressive discipline policy that involves four stages": a verbal discussion, a written statement outlining an employee's required performance, a written statement of consequences if an employee is not performing as required, and an execution of the consequences. The handbook then provides a list of "grounds for immediate termination." Immediately following this list is the declaration that "[Mrs. Fields] is an at-will employer," that the list provided should not be "construed as a promise of specific treatment in a given situation," and that "[Mrs. Fields] is free to terminate an employee's employment at any time with or without cause."

Trembly testified in his deposition that he had used this particular handbook for training a store manager and had specifically talked about the at-will language contained in the handbook. Trembly further testified that he understood that Mrs. Fields utilized an at-will employment policy and believed his employment relationship with Mrs. Fields to be "at-will."

Mrs. Fields terminated Trembly on March 13, 1990. Trembly filed suit against Mrs. Fields, asserting five causes of action: (1) breach of implied-in-fact employment contract; (2) breach of written contract; (3) breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing; (4) misrepresentation; and (5) intentional infliction of emotional distress. Trembly filed his complaint in the Third Judicial District Court in Summit County, which operates on a rotating trial judge calendar.

Mrs. Fields filed a motion to dismiss Trembly's third cause of action, which was granted by then-presiding Judge Frank G. Noel. Mrs. Fields subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of Trembly's remaining causes of action. The trial court, through Judge Homer F. Wilkinson, granted summary judgment on Trembly's fourth and fifth causes of action, but denied summary judgment on Trembly's first and second claims.

Mrs. Fields filed a motion for reconsideration of Judge Wilkinson's denial of summary judgment with respect to Trembly's first and second causes of action. Judge Wilkinson partially granted the motion, dismissing count two of Trembly's complaint, but leaving intact Trembly's implied-in-fact employment contract claim. Mrs. Fields subsequently filed a motion for relief from that order, basing it upon the then recent Utah Supreme Court decisions Sanderson v. First Sec. Leasing, 844 P.2d 303 (Utah 1992), and Hodgson v. Bunzl Utah, Inc., 844 P.2d 331 (Utah 1992). Judge David S. Young, who had rotated into the court replacing Judge Wilkinson, granted the motion for relief and rendered summary judgment in Mrs. Fields's favor on the grounds that the holdings in Sanderson and Hodgson and the undisputed facts established, as a matter of law, that Trembly's "employment relationship with [Mrs. Fields] was 'at-will.' "

Trembly appeals.


This appeal raises three issues: (1) Whether Judge Young erred in entertaining Mrs. Fields's motion for relief; (2) whether Judge Young erred by granting the motion; and (3) whether the undisputed evidence creates a material issue of fact as to whether Trembly had an implied-in-fact employment contract providing he would be terminated only for cause and, accordingly, whether summary judgment was improper.


Trembly claims that Judge Young erred in hearing Mrs. Fields's motion 2 because no new facts were presented and because entertaining the motion violated the "law of the case" doctrine. The decision to entertain a motion under Rule 54(b) is a question of law. " 'We accord conclusions of law no particular deference, but review them for correctness.' " Richins v. Delbert Chipman & Sons Co., 817 P.2d 382, 385 (Utah App.1991) (quoting Scharf v. BMG Corp., 700 P.2d 1068, 1070 (Utah 1985)).

Rule 54(b) of the Utah Rules of Civil Procedure provides, in pertinent part, that

any order or other form of decision, however designated, which adjudicates fewer than all the claims or the rights and liabilities of fewer than all the parties ... is subject to revision at any time before the entry of judgment adjudicating all the claims and the rights and liabilities of all the parties.

Id. Rule 54(b) allows "for the possibility of a judge changing his or her mind in cases involving multiple parties or multiple claims." Salt Lake City Corp. v. James Constructors, 761 P.2d 42, 44 (Utah App.1988). Thus, a motion under Rule 54(b) is a proper vehicle to ask the court to reconsider its prior denial of a motion for summary judgment. Timm v. Dewsnup, 851 P.2d 1178, 1184-85 (Utah 1993); James Constructors, 761 P.2d at 44 & n. 5.

A court can consider several factors in determining the propriety of reconsidering a prior ruling. These may include, but are not limited to, when (1) the matter is presented in a "different light" or under "different circumstances;" (2) there has been a change in the governing law; (3) a party offers new evidence; (4) "manifest injustice" will result if the court does not reconsider the prior ruling; (5) a court needs to correct its own errors; or (6) an issue was inadequately briefed when first contemplated by the court. State v. O'Neil, 848 P.2d 694, 697 n. 2 (Utah App.), cert. denied, 859 P.2d 585 (Utah 1993).

Mrs. Fields based its motion on Sanderson v. First Sec. Leasing, 844 P.2d 303 (Utah 1992), and Hodgson v. Bunzl Utah, Inc., 844 P.2d 331 (Utah 1992), which the supreme court decided after Judge Wilkinson denied Mrs. Fields's motion for summary judgment on Trembly's implied-in-fact contract claim. Mrs. Fields apparently believed that these decisions presented the case at bar in a different light because of the factual similarities, 3 and because the Utah Supreme Court in Hodgson held that the plaintiff had not presented sufficient evidence to withstand summary judgment. Judge Young agreed, stating that "if this were my case and I had handled it throughout, I would have called it back with the...

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