In an employee’s appeal, the Nebraska Court of Appeals recently considered an offer of employment, whether its acceptance by the employee created a valid employment contract, and whether the employer had cause to revoke the offer upon learning new information. The trial court had ruled for the employer as a matter of law, but the Court of Appeals recently sent the case back down to the trial court so a jury can decide these issues. Read on to learn more!
Paula Crozier (“Crozier”) was employed as executive director of a nonprofit organization. She resigned from that position in March of 2014. She then applied for the position of marketing and communications director at Brownell-Talbot School (“Brownell”). During an interview for the positon, Crozier was asked why she left her previous employment. She answered, “due to differences in business practices and ethical standards.”
Crozier was offered the position, and Brownell sent an offer letter for her to sign and return. The letter stated that Crozier would be hired for a twelve-month position but then stated her period of employment would be May 5, 2014 to July 30, 2015, a period of about fourteen months. The letter also stated that Crozier would receive an annual salary of $55,000 and made reference to various benefits that Crozier would receive after two years of employment.
The letter was sent by Brownell on April 28, 2014 and was signed and returned by Crozier on April 29, 2014. On May 1, 2014 Brownell made an announcement that it had hired Crozier.
On May 2, 2014 a newspaper article was published that described several issues involving Crozier’s former employer. The issues included billing and management problems and a failure to respond to an allegation of sexual abuse by an employee. Neither Crozier’s name nor any dates coinciding with Crozier’s dates of employment were mentioned in the article.
Crozier brought the article to her direct supervisor who brought it to the attention of the head of the school. That day, the head of the school held a meeting with Crozier. At the meeting, Crozier explained she was not responsible for any of the problems and that she had resigned before the incident regarding the sexual abuse. Crozier also explained that she left her former employer upon discovering the issues that were mentioned in the article. Crozier reported the issues to the attorney general and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Later that day, Brownell retracted the offer to Crozier over fears of public relations and damage to its reputation.
Crozier filed a complaint against Brownell alleging a breach of contract and lack of good cause to revoke the offer of employment.
District Court Proceedings
The district court found that the “durational terms in the letter were ambiguous and there was no clear intent sufficient to overcome the presumption of at-will employment.” The district court also found that Brownell had good cause in revoking the offer to Crozier. Subsequently, Crozier appealed.
Court of Appeals’ Ruling
a. Contract of Employment. The court noted that a contract is considered ambiguous “when a word, phrase, or provision in the contract has, or is susceptible of, at least two reasonable but conflicting interpretations or meanings.” Here, the court determined that the contract was in fact ambiguous. The contract identified Crozier’s job as a “twelve-month position” and conferred an “annual salary” but then stated the term of Crozier’s employment will last from May 5, 2014 to June 30, 2015, a total of 14 months. The court stated that there is no way to read the letter that “can reconcile these conflicting durations, which stand in direct contradiction of one another.” Since a term in the contract was susceptible to two different interpretations, evidence beyond just the terms of the contract could be considered to construe the parties’ actual agreement.
The court then considered the testimony of Brownell’s director of business and finance. He stated that the reference to the 12 month period was in order to distinguish Crozier’s employment from that of a 10-month or 9-month employee. He further specified the salary stated in the offer was for determining Crozier’s monthly rate of pay.
The court concluded that, in light of this testimony, a jury could find Crozier was to be employed for a definite term from May 5, 2014 to June 30, 2015 for a specific rate of pay. As a result, the question of breach of contract should have proceeded to the jury, and the court of appeals reversed the trial court’s decision.
b. Good Cause for Revoking Offer
The court clarified that an employer can terminate an at-will employee at any time for any reason but if an employee is contracted for a defined term, that employee “cannot lawfully be terminated prior to the expiration of that term without good cause.” The court defined “good cause” in terms of what a reasonable employer would determine to be a good reason for terminating an employee.
The court determined that reasonable minds could differ as to whether Brownell revoked its offer to Crozier for good cause. Brownell stated that it terminated Crozier out of public relations concerns and that it could harm its reputation. Crozier presented evidence that her name was not mentioned anywhere in the news article and those allegations stated in the article were the reason she resigned from her previous employment in the first place. As a result, this issue should also have been left to a jury to decide.
The matter will be returned to the district court for trial of these issues to a jury.
Crozier v. Brownell-Talbot School, 25 Neb. App. 1 (2017).
Takeaway for employers
Placing temporal terms on an offer of employment can transform what might otherwise have been an offer of at-will employment. Think carefully about crafting offer letters and involve your legal counsel for any special circumstances when offering new employment or renewing employment.
Bonnie Boryca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (402) 397-2200.