PITTSBURGH – A presumed condition of at-will employment status defeated an appeal motion for an advertising company’s former project manager, according to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.
Judges John T. Bender, Kate Ford Elliott and Jacqueline O. Shogan ruled Katie Wakeley was not entitled to relief in her employment dispute action, which appealed a decision from the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas that rendered judgment on the pleadings for M.J. Brunner, Inc.
In 2011, Wakeley worked as a project manager for an advertising agency in Dallas and earned an annual salary of $80,000. In March 2012, a recruiter approached Wakeley about a position with Brunner as a digital account director in Pittsburgh – but due to “an unexpected change in its business”, the offer was rescinded and Wakeley was able to keep her job in Dallas.
In May 2012, the same recruiter again approached Wakeley about another opening at Brunner as an account director, covering for a colleague taking maternity leave – for an annual salary of $90,000 plus benefits, and a $9,000 relocation bonus. Brunner allegedly promised Wakeley she would receive extensive training and supervision to learn her new role, and would be assigned another, permanent position when the incumbent returned from maternity leave.
Wakeley accepted Brunner’s offer of employment in June 2012, and she and her family relocated from Dallas to Pittsburgh. However, Wakeley argued she “received little training and little guidance from her supervisor” and “her only assistance came from an inexperienced subordinate.” After two mishaps, Brunner fired Wakeley in September 2012.
This led Wakeley to file a three-count complaint against Brunner in August 2014, for breach of implied contract, breach of express contract and fraudulent inducement. Wakeley believed Brunner was liable for leading her and family to relocate, breached promises to provide her with training and supervision in her new role and a future permanent role, and based upon these false promises, knowingly induced Wakeley to accept employment.
Brunner responded with a copy of Wakeley’s pre-hire employment confirmation, which categorized her role as “at-will” – meaning Wakeley could resign at any time, with or without cause, and Brunner could terminate her at any time, with or without cause – and that her employment was not guaranteed for any specified length of time.
Brunner asserted Wakeley’s claim should be dismissed and the trial court granted that motion in February 2015.
Wakeley appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, alleging the trial court erred in determining the defendants were not liable for breach of implied and excess contract and fraudulent inducement of her employment, and that the pre-hire documents did not in fact stipulate her employment terms as at-will.
Bender said, “In Pennsylvania, employment is presumed to be at-will, unless there is an agreement otherwise. A plaintiff may overcome the presumption if she can demonstrate additional consideration beyond the services for which she was hired. However, where the plaintiff has clearly acknowledged the at-will nature of her employment, the presumption must prevail.”
In this matter, the Superior Court determined the pre-hire confirmation stipulating Wakeley's employment as at-will as the deciding factor.
“The confirmation, signed by appellant just prior to commencing her Brunner employment, is clear and dispositive. It provides specifically that her employment was at-will,” Bender said. “By signing this document, appellant was properly notified and acknowledged the nature of her employment. In our view, this acknowledgment defeats appellant’s ‘additional consideration’ claim as a matter of law.”
The Superior Court finished their decision by dismissing Wakeley’s claims.
“The notice and acknowledgment of appellant’s at-will status effectively eliminates each of her claims, and we need not address in detail appellant’s arguments to the contrary,” Bender said.
“Appellant’s claim for breach of implied contract relies upon her theory of additional consideration. However, the confirmation of at-will employment signed by appellant precludes this claim,” Bender concluded.
The appellant is represented by John Stember of Stember Cohn & Davidson-Welling, in Pittsburgh.
The appellee is represented by Craig M. Brooks of Houston Harbaugh, also in Pittsburgh.
Superior Court of Pennsylvania case 392 WDA 2015
Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas case GD-14-009877
From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at firstname.lastname@example.org