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Jones v. Flaster/Greenberg P.C.

United States District Court, Third Circuit

December 30, 2013

TAFFIE JONES
v.
FLASTER/GREENBERG P.C.

MEMORANDUM

John R. Padova, J.

Plaintiff Taffie Jones has brought this breach of contract action against her former employer, Flaster/Greenberg P.C. (“Flaster”), arising from Flaster’s termination of her employment eight months after she was hired. Flaster has moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. For the following reasons, the Motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND

The Complaint alleges the following facts. On February 22, 2012, Flaster offered Jones an associate attorney position in the intellectual property department of its Philadelphia office. (Compl. ¶ 5, Ex. A.) At that time, Jones was self-employed as an attorney in Chicago, Illinois and lived in Forest Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 10-11.) She was a member of the Illinois bar and the federal patent bar. (Id. ¶ 9.) Flaster promised Jones that, if she accepted the offer, she would be mentored by Lynda Calderone, Esq., who was a Flaster shareholder and chair of Defendant’s intellectual property department. (Id. ¶ 14.) The promise of this mentorship was important to Jones because she wanted to obtain training and experience as a patent attorney. (Id. ¶ 15.) Jones accepted the offer based on this promise, closed her practice and moved to Philadelphia, where she began work with Flaster on March 12, 2012. (Id. ¶¶ 7, 14.).

Jones did not receive the mentoring she expected from Calderone. (Id. ¶ 18.) Rather, Calderone berated and yelled at her. (Id. ¶ 20.) In addition, Jones worked fewer hours than Flaster required because Calderone would not give her work. (Id. ¶ 21.) Calderone also falsely told others that Jones missed deadlines and made errors in her work. (Id. ¶ 22.) Jones spoke to Calderone, other shareholders of Flaster, and the firm’s Human Resources Director about Calderone’s treatment of her, but nothing helped. (Id. ¶ 24.) On November 9, 2012, Jones reported the hostile work environment she was experiencing to Flaster’s human resources department. (Id. ¶ 25.) On November 30, 2012, Flaster fired Jones. (Id. ¶ 26.) Flaster claimed it terminated Jones based on her performance even though Jones had been given a positive performance review on November 2, 2012. (Id. ¶¶ 26-27.).

As a result of Flaster’s termination of Jones, she now has no job in Pennsylvania, where she is not licensed to practice. (Id. ¶ 29.) Jones has also suffered a loss of income and impairment to her professional reputation as a result of her termination. (Id. ¶¶ 30-31.)

The Complaint asserts three claims for relief. Count I asserts a claim for breach of implied contract. Count II asserts a claim for promissory estoppel/detrimental reliance. Count III asserts a claim for negligent misrepresentation. Flaster has moved to dismiss the Complaint in its entirety for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

II. LEGAL STANDARD

When considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), we “consider only the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, [and] matters of public record, as well as undisputedly authentic documents if the complainant’s claims are based upon these documents.” Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 230 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993)). We take the factual allegations of the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. DelRio-Mocci v. Connolly Props., Inc., 672 F.3d 241, 245 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Warren Gen. Hosp. v. Amgen Inc., 643 F.3d 77, 84 (3d Cir. 2011)). Legal conclusions, however, receive no deference, and the court is “not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986) (cited with approval in Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)).

A plaintiff’s pleading obligation is to set forth “a short and plain statement of the claim, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), which gives the defendant “‘fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.’” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (alteration in original) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). The complaint must contain “‘sufficient factual matter to show that the claim is facially plausible, ’ thus enabling ‘the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for [the] misconduct alleged.’” Warren Gen. Hosp., 643 F.3d at 84 (quoting Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009)). “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, ’ but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). In the end, we will grant a motion to dismiss brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) if the factual allegations in the complaint are not sufficient “‘to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.’” West Run Student Hous. Assocs., LLC v. Huntington Nat’l Bank, 712 F.3d 165, 169 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

III. DISCUSSION

A. The Breach of Implied Contract Claim

The Complaint alleges that there was an implied contract of employment between Jones and Flaster, created by Flaster’s knowledge of the substantial hardship that Plaintiff incurred in accepting Flaster’s job offer. (Compl. ¶¶ 36-38.) The Complaint further alleges that Flaster breached this implied contract of employment by firing Jones without just cause, within an unreasonable amount of time after she began her employment. (Id. ¶ 39.) Flaster argues that the Complaint fails to state a claim for breach of an implied contract of employment upon which relief may be granted because Jones was an at-will employee.

“The general rule in Pennsylvania is that employment is at-will unless there is a statutory or contractual provision to the contrary.” Wallett v. Pennsylvania Turnpike Comm’n, 528 F. App’x 175, 180 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing Weaver v. Harpster, 975 A.2d 555, 556 (Pa. 2009)). “[T]he at-will employment doctrine provides that absent a statutory or contractual provision to the contrary, the employer and employee each have the power to terminate the employment relationship for any or no reason.” Weaver, 975 A.2d at 557 n.3 (citing Geary v. United States Steel Corp., 319 A.2d 174, 176 (Pa. 1974)). The “presumption of at-will employment can be overcome by showing that there is an express contract between the parties, with a provision stating that an employee can only be terminated ‘for cause.’” Preobrazhenskaya v. Mercy Hall Infirmary, 71 F. App’x 936, 940 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing Scott v. Extracorporeal, Inc., 545 A.2d 334, 336-37 (Pa.Super. Ct. 1988)). “An ‘implied-in-fact’ contract can ...


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