Judge allows, in part, attorney's breach of contract suit against Flaster Greenberg to proceed

A federal judge in Philadelphia has granted in part and denied in part a

motion to dismiss a lawsuit by an attorney who claims she was wrongfully terminated from her job shortly after moving to Pennsylvania from out-of-state.

In a Dec. 30 ruling, U.S. District Judge John R. Padova, sitting in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, granted a defense motion to dismiss Taffie Jones’s negligent misrepresentation claim against Flaster Greenberg P.C., although the jurist refused to toss the plaintiff’s claims of breach of implied contract and promissory estoppel/detrimental reliance.

Jones is suing Flaster Greenberg over her Nov. 30, 2012, firing, which came just eight months after the defendant brought her aboard to be trained as a patent attorney.

The plaintiff, who had previously been a self-employed attorney in Chicago, moved to Pennsylvania after she was offered an associate attorney position in Flaster Greenberg’s intellectual property department at its Philadelphia office, according to Jones’s complaint.

Jones, who was still admitted to practice law in Illinois at the time of her late February 2012 hiring, but had not yet been admitted to the Pennsylvania bar, claims that she was told if she accepted the position, she would be mentored and trained by a lawyer identified as Lynda Calderone, who was a Flaster Greenberg shareholder and chair of the firm’s intellectual property department.

The promise was important to Jones, court papers state, because she wanted to obtain training and experience as a patent attorney.

Jones alleges that she accepted the position based upon this apparent promise.

Jones closed her Chicago practice and moved to Philadelphia in mid-March 2012.

In her lawsuit, Jones claims she never received the mentoring she expected to receive from Calderone, but rather the woman “berated and yelled” at the plaintiff, and she falsely told others that Jones often missed deadlines and made errors in her work.

Jones claims she reported the treatment to human resources, but that Calderone’s actions did not cease.

Jones was eventually fired, just over two weeks after she made a final hostile work environment report to human resources, the record shows.

Jones claims she now has no job in Pennsylvania, is not licensed to practice law in the commonwealth, and has suffered a loss of income and impairment to her professional reputation as a result of her termination.

The law firm ultimately moved to dismiss the litigation for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

In his ruling, Padova, the judge overseeing the case, concluded that the complaint plausibly alleges that Jones suffered a substantial hardship in order to begin her employment with Flaster Greenberg, thus creating an implied contract for a reasonable period of employment.

Padova, in allowing the breach of implied contract of employment claim to move forward, wrote that the defendant failed to make its case that the hardships alleged in the complaint were insufficient as a matter of law to create an implied contract of employment.

The law firm argued that moving to a new location to accept a job is not a sufficient hardship to overcome the “at-will presumption.”

In its employment manual, the firm asserted, any hardship experienced by Jones in connection with acceptance of her employment was irrelevant because Jones was an at-will employee.

Padova determined that he could not consider the portion of Flaster’s manual dealing with its at-will employment policy because the manual was not mentioned in Jones’s complaint, and is not an exhibit in the litigation, is not a matter of public record, and because Jones’s claims do not rely on that document.

On seeking dismissal of the promissory estoppel/detrimental reliance claim, the law firm argued that Jones failed to make her case because she was an at-will employee and because the alleged promise was too vague to support such a claim.

The judge ruled that the promise alleged in the complaint, which specifically identified Calderone as someone who would train, direct and mentor Jones, is not “too vague and indefinite to constitute a ‘promise’ for purposes of promissory estoppel.”

Padova did, however, dismiss Jones’s negligent misrepresentation claim, writing that such claims must be based on misrepresentations regarding present facts and not unfulfilled promises to do acts in the future.

Here, the law firm had argued that Jones’s negligent misrepresentation claim should be tossed because the complaint does not allege the misrepresentation of a present fact that was untrue when it was made.

Flaster argued that the complaint does not allege facts that would establish it did not intend to provide Jones with the “opportunity to learn and grow as a patent attorney with the direction, training and mentorship of senior attorneys, specifically Attorney Calderone,” at the time that representation was made.”

The judge agreed with the defense, writing his decision to toss the misrepresentation claim was based on the fact that the promise made to Jones was a promise regarding actions that would take place in the future.

“This promise did not concern a ‘present, material fact,’” Padova wrote.

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