Worley v. Wyoming Bottling Co., Inc.

Citation1 P.3d 615
Decision Date23 March 2000
Docket NumberNo. 98-123.,98-123.
PartiesJerry M. WORLEY, Appellant (Plaintiff), v. WYOMING BOTTLING COMPANY, INC., d/b/a Coca-Cola of Casper, Appellee (Defendant).
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wyoming

Representing Appellant: Jeffrey C. Gosman of Gosman Law Offices, Casper, WY. Argument by Mr. Gosman.

Representing Appellee: Marvin L. Tyler and B. Joan Dodd of Bussart, West, Rossetti, Piaia & Tyler, PC, Rock Springs, WY. Argument by Ms. Dodd.

Before LEHMAN, C.J., and THOMAS, MACY, GOLDEN, and TAYLOR,1 JJ.

LEHMAN, Chief Justice.

Jerry Worley contends that, after fifteen and a half years of faithful service, he was fired by appellee Wyoming Bottling. In turn, he filed suit claiming breach of employment contract, promissory estoppel, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court granted Wyoming Bottling summary judgment on all claims. Because we conclude that disputed issues of material fact remain on Worley's claims for breach of contract, promissory estoppel, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, we reverse and remand.

ISSUES

We adopt the statement of issues presented by appellee Wyoming Bottling, Inc. d/b/a Coca-Cola of Casper (Wyoming Bottling):

A. Did the trial court properly rule that the Appellant was an at-will employee at all times while employed by the Appellee?
B. Did the trial court properly rule that the Appellant failed to establish a cause of action for promissory estoppel?
C. Did the trial court properly rule that the Appellant failed to establish a cause of action for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing?
D. Was the trial court correct in ruling that the Appellant failed to establish a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress?
FACTS

In accord with our standard of review, we present the facts in the light most favorable to Worley. When hired by Wyoming Bottling in May of 1980, Worley completed an employment application which contained an at-will employment disclaimer. Worley assumed the position of sales manager for the soft drink distributorship shortly after being hired, where he remained until his claimed firing in January of 1996. During his tenure, Worley established an exemplary work record, using three sick days in fifteen and a half years while earning numerous commendations, awards, and raises.

Also during Worley's tenure, Wyoming Bottling issued other at-will disclaimers. In 1991, Worley signed a non-compete agreement which included at-will employment language. Additionally, Wyoming Bottling issued an employee handbook in 1993 which contained several at-will employment disclaimers. The legal effect of these disclaimers, as well as the one contained in the 1980 application, is at issue in this appeal.

In 1995, due to increased sales goals and termination threats, Worley's work environment became stressful. After Worley's supervisor, area manager Herb McDonald, resigned, Worley began to question his own job security and spoke with Joe DeCora, the company president, about job security. Worley explained to DeCora that he was planning to make some major financial commitments, but first wanted to ensure that his job was secure. In his deposition, Worley testified that DeCora told him to make the financial commitments; that his job was secure; and the job would remain available to Worley as long as he wanted it. Following this discussion, Worley met for lunch with DeCora and the recently resigned McDonald. During lunch, and in McDonald's presence, DeCora's promise of job security was restated, as confirmed by McDonald's affidavit. In the same affidavit, McDonald asserts that Worley was the only employee left in the Casper office with the ability and experience to run the office until McDonald's successor could be found. It thus, McDonald explained, would have been difficult for Wyoming Bottling, without Worley, to continue normal operations for some time.

In December of 1995, Worley borrowed $18,000 by refinancing his home loan, using the proceeds to purchase a new car and new appliances for his home. Before finalizing the loan, Worley checked with his direct supervisor, Butch Gibson, to verify that his job performance was satisfactory. According to Worley, Gibson stated that everything was fine and "to go on about my affairs." In January of 1996, Wyoming Bottling demoted Worley one position level to route manager. The demotion included the loss of use of a company car, loss of use of a company credit card, and an $11,000 reduction in annual salary. Since Gibson had told him in December his work was fine, Worley was confused about the demotion and contacted DeCora. The parties contest what occurred during that conversation. Worley claims that DeCora fired him, repeating it three times in the midst of profanity, whereas Wyoming Bottling asserts that Worley quit.

Worley filed suit in January of 1997, claiming breach of employment contract, promissory estoppel, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The trial court granted summary judgment on all claims in favor of Wyoming Bottling. Worley timely appealed.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate if the record, viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, reveals that no genuine issues of material fact exist and the prevailing party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Terry v. Pioneer Press, Inc., 947 P.2d 273, 275 (Wyo.1997); Davis v. Wyoming Medical Center, Inc., 934 P.2d 1246, 1250 (Wyo.1997); W.R.C.P. 56(c). A fact is material if it establishes or refutes an essential element of a claim or defense. Tidwell v. HOM, Inc., 896 P.2d 1322, 1324 (Wyo.1995). In evaluating summary judgment, we apply the same standards as the trial court, without affording any deference to the trial court's decisions on issues of law. Wilder v. Cody Country Chamber of Commerce, 868 P.2d 211, 216 (Wyo.1994).

DISCUSSION
Contract Claims

Wyoming recognizes the at-will employment doctrine, which allows either an employee, or an employer to end the employment relationship at any time for any reason or for no reason. Although employment for an indefinite period of time is presumed to be at will, that presumption can be overcome by either an implied-in-fact contract or an express contract. Davis, 934 P.2d at 1249; Wilder, 868 P.2d at 217. Worley claims Wyoming Bottling's progressive discipline policy created an implied-in-fact employment contract. Alternatively, Worley claims that he entered into an express oral contract with DeCora.

Implied-in-fact Contract

When parties act in a manner conveying mutual agreement and an intent to promise, an implied-in-fact contract may arise. Wilder, 868 P.2d at 216. The consideration for such a contract, in the employment context, consists of the benefit to the employer in "an orderly, cooperative and loyal work force." Leithead v. American Colloid Co., 721 P.2d 1059, 1062-63 (Wyo.1986) (citing Mobil Coal Producing, Inc. v. Parks, 704 P.2d 702, 707 (Wyo.1985)); Garcia v. UniWyo Federal Credit Union, 920 P.2d 642, 645 (Wyo.1996). We examine, under an objective test, whether the employer has intended, either by words or conduct, to include job security as part of an implied contract. Terry v. Pioneer Press, Inc., 947 P.2d at 275; McDonald v. Mobil Coal Producing, Inc., 820 P.2d 986, 990 (Wyo.1991). "An employment handbook or personnel policies, letters of employment, performance evaluations and an employer's course of dealing may supply terms for an implied-in-fact employment contract which requires termination for cause only unless it contains a sufficient disclaimer." Bear v. Volunteers of America, Wyoming, Inc., 964 P.2d 1245, 1250 (Wyo.1998); Lincoln v. Wackenhut Corp., 867 P.2d 701, 703 (Wyo.1994); Sanchez v. Life Care Centers of America, Inc., 855 P.2d 1256, 1259 (Wyo.1993).

A valid, conspicuous, and unambiguous disclaimer notifying employees of their at-will employment status can preclude a progressive discipline policy from forming an implied contract. Andrews v. Southwest Wyoming Rehabilitation Center, 974 P.2d 948, 951 (Wyo.1999); Sanchez, 855 P.2d at 1258-59. "We determine as a matter of law whether or not a disclaimer is conspicuous." Arch of Wyoming, Inc. v. Sisneros, 971 P.2d 981, 984 (Wyo.1999) (citing McDonald v. Mobil Coal Producing, Inc., 820 P.2d at 988). In making that determination, we look at, inter alia, the disclaimer's prominence and placement. McDonald, 820 P.2d at 989; Lincoln, 867 at 703-04.

A review of Worley's 1980 application reveals that the disclaimer does not occupy a paragraph of its own, but rather follows a sentence authorizing the employer to investigate statements made in the application, along with notice that misrepresentation or omission of facts is cause for dismissal. Wyoming Bottling did not prominently locate the disclaimer with either a heading, subheading, or any type of border, but blended the disclaimer into the rest of the information without bolding, capitalization, or use of other means to separate it from the other text. In Sanchez, 855 P.2d at 1259, we held a similar disclaimer was not sufficiently conspicuous. We conclude that the disclaimer language in Worley's 1980 employment application is ineffective as a matter of law.

Worley presented evidence that Wyoming Bottling's discipline policy, prior to the issuance of the later at-will disclaimers, proceeded with progressive steps before terminating employees. Viewing this evidence in Worley's favor, such a policy may have fettered Wyoming Bottling's right to discharge Worley at any time without cause. Genuine issues of fact persist regarding the discipline policy, including its terms and its extent, whether the policy was followed by Wyoming Bottling, and ultimately whether a contract was formed.

Wyoming Bottling also relies upon additional disclaimers, including those issued in a 1...

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