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Roberts v. The Hertz Corp.

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

March 27, 2018

SARAH A. ROBERTS, Plaintiff,
v.
THE HERTZ CORPORATION, Defendant.

          ORDER

          TIMOTHY D. DeGIUSTI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 15], filed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Defendant Hertz Corporation (“Hertz”) seeks a judgment as a matter of law on Plaintiff's claims for breach of an employment contract and for unpaid wages. The Motion is fully briefed and ripe for decision. For the reasons that follow, the Court grants summary judgment to Hertz.

         Plaintiff Sarah Roberts brought suit in state court against her former employer, Hertz, asserting two claims under Oklahoma law: 1) that Hertz breached an implied contract of employment by terminating her without providing progressive discipline or other procedural protections to which she was entitled; and 2) that Hertz failed to pay her earned wages as required by Okla. Stat. tit. 40, § 165.3, in that she was entitled to a lump sum payment upon termination of unused vacation pay and vested pension benefits. Hertz timely removed the case to federal court based on diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Following discovery, Hertz now seeks summary judgment in its favor on all claims.

         Plaintiff does not oppose the Motion with respect to her claim for unpaid wages. She both fails to dispute Defendant's statement of facts regarding this claim, and affirmatively states that she “will be filing a stipulation of dismissal regarding her claim of failure to pay unpaid wages as a result of the evidence presented by Hertz.” See Pl.'s Resp. Br. [Doc. No. 20] at 25. Although no stipulation of dismissal has been filed, the Court finds that Hertz is entitled to summary judgment on this claim for the reasons set forth in its Motion. Thus, the Court addresses only Plaintiff's breach of contract claim.

         Standard of Decision

         Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A material fact is one that “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for either party. Id. at 255. All facts and reasonable inferences must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Id. If a party who would bear the burden of proof at trial lacks sufficient evidence on an essential element of its claim or defense, all other factual issues concerning the claim or defense become immaterial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

         The movant bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a dispute of material fact warranting summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23. If the movant carries this burden, the nonmovant must then go beyond the pleadings and “set forth specific facts” that would be admissible in evidence and that show a genuine issue for trial. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324; Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 671 (10th Cir. 1998). “To accomplish this, the facts must be identified by reference to affidavits, deposition transcripts, or specific exhibits incorporated therein.” Adler, 144 F.3d at 671; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A). The Court's inquiry is whether the facts and evidence identified by the parties present “a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52.

         Statement of Undisputed Facts[1]

         Hertz hired Plaintiff as an at-will employee without a written employment contract. Plaintiff received a copy of an employee handbook that reaffirmed her at-will status, and contained multiple disclaimers of Hertz's intent to establish an employment contract except by a written agreement signed by the corporation's chairman or chief executive officer. Although the handbook discussed rules of conduct and illustrative bases for discipline or discharge, it did not contain a progressive discipline policy. Plaintiff's claim that an implied contract existed is not based on the handbook, but is based on the disciplinary practices of Hertz and a PowerPoint presentation for supervisors that was used for training and instructional purposes. The PowerPoint, entitled “Performance Monitoring, ” “cover[s] policies that supervisors encounter daily and explains disciplinary steps that should be taken when employees aren't meeting standards or abiding by policies.” See Def.'s Mot. Summ. J., Ex. G [Doc. No. 15-7] at 1. Included in the steps were periodic performance reviews, job performance and behavior warnings, use of a performance improvement plan, and a termination checklist, with sample warning letters and forms. See id. at 20-33. Plaintiff “admits that her claim is based upon the PowerPoint presentation that lays out the behavior and non-behavioral discipline process prior to possible termination.” See Pl.'s Resp. Br. at 9 (response to ¶¶ 13-16).

         Discussion

         An essential element of Plaintiff's claim is the existence of an implied contract with Hertz arising from the PowerPoint presentation and supervisory training. The terms of the alleged contract are unclear, other than an expectation that Hertz would provide some sort of notice or warning and an opportunity to respond to an alleged deficiency prior to termination. See Pl.'s Resp. Br. at 17-18. Plaintiff does not allege that the implied contract, if proven, placed any substantive restriction on the at-will nature of her employment; she advocates for a finding “of implied contractual rights to the use of the procedures” contained in Hertz's instructions and guidance to supervisors. See id. at 19 (quoting Johnson v. Nasca, 802 P.2d 1294, 1297 (Okla.Civ.App. 1990)).

         Under Oklahoma law, “[a]lthough the existence of an implied contract generally presents an issue of fact, if the alleged promises are nothing more than vague assurances the issue can be decided as a matter of law. This is so because in order to create an implied contract the promises must be definite.” Russell v. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs, 952 P.2d 492, 502 (Okla. 1997) (footnotes omitted); accord Hayes v, Eateries, Inc., 905 P.2d 778, 783 (Okla. 1995); see Bowen v. Income Prod'g Mgmt. of Okla., Inc., 202 F.3d 1282, 1284 (10th Cir. 2000) (applying Oklahoma law). As explained by the Oklahoma Supreme Court,

Only when the promises are definite and, thus, of the sort which may be reasonably or justifiably relied on by the employee, will a contract claim be viable, not when the employee relies on only vague assurances that no reasonable person would justifiably rely upon. There is, thus, an objective component to the nature of such a contract claim in the form of definite and specific promises by the employer sufficient to substantively restrict the reasons for termination.

Hayes, 905 P.2d at 783. The Tenth Circuit, applying Hayes, has emphasized: “Employer guarantees are merely ‘vague assurances' unless they place substantive restrictions on the reasons an employer my a terminate an employee.” Bowen, 202 F.3d at 1284 (emphasis on original). Here, as in Hayes, 905 P.2d at 783, Plaintiff fails to allege or show “any such substantive restrictions or definite or specific promises” on the part of Hertz. ...


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