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Pierce v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp.

Supreme Court of New Jersey

November 13, 1979, Argued ; July 28, 1980, Decided



 [*61]  [**506]   This case presents the question whether an employee at will has a cause of action against her employer to recover damages for the termination of her employment following her refusal to continue a project she viewed as medically unethical. Resolution of this question involves an examination of the common law doctrine of at will employment to determine whether we should adopt an exception to the rule allowing an employer to discharge an at will employee without cause.

Plaintiff, Dr. Grace Pierce, sued for damages after termination of her employment with defendant,  [***2]  Ortho Pharmaceutical Corporation.  The trial judge granted defendant's motion for summary judgment. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded for a full trial. 166 N.J. Super. 335 (1979). We granted defendant's petition for certification. 81 N.J. 266 (1979). We now reverse the Appellate Division and reinstate the summary judgment granted by the Law Division.

] Since the matter involves a motion for summary judgment, we glean the facts from the pleadings, affidavits, and depositions before the court on the motion, giving plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences that may be drawn in her favor. R. 4:46-2.

 [*62]  Ortho specializes in the development and manufacture of therapeutic and reproductive drugs. Dr. Pierce is a medical doctor who was first employed by Ortho in 1971 as an Associate Director of Medical Research. She signed no contract except a secrecy agreement, and her employment was not for a fixed term. She was an employee at will. In 1973, she became the Director of Medical Research/Therapeutics, one of three major sections of the Medical Research Department. Her primary responsibilities were to oversee development of therapeutic drugs [***3]  and to establish procedures for testing those drugs for safety, effectiveness, and marketability. Her immediate supervisor was Dr. Samuel Pasquale, Executive Medical Director.

In the spring of 1975, Dr. Pierce was the only medical doctor on a project team developing loperamide, a liquid drug for treatment  [**507]  of diarrhea in infants, children, and elderly persons. The proposed formulation contained saccharin. Although the concentration was consistent with the formula for loperamide marketed in Europe, the project team agreed that the formula was unsuitable for use in the United States. An alternative formulation containing less saccharin might have been developed within approximately three months.

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84 N.J. 58 *; 417 A.2d 505 **; 1980 N.J. LEXIS 1394 ***; 12 A.L.R.4th 520; 115 L.R.R.M. 3044; 1 I.E.R. Cas. (BNA) 109; 101 Lab. Cas. (CCH) P55,477


Prior History:  [***1]  On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 166 N.J.Super. 335 (1979).


public policy, clinical, discharged, clear mandate, loperamide, employees, cause of action, summary judgment, saccharin, testing, ethical, experimentation, patient, wrongful discharge, principles, therapeutic, experiment, codes, unethical, formula, genuine, material fact, contractual, declaration, termination, resignation, guidelines, profession, regulation, damages

Civil Procedure, Appeals, Summary Judgment Review, Standards of Review, Labor & Employment Law, Conditions & Terms, Duration of Employment, Fixed Term, Employment Contracts, General Overview, Summary Judgment, Motions for Summary Judgment, Judgments, Entitlement as Matter of Law, Genuine Disputes, Materiality of Facts, Responses, Defenses, Demurrers & Objections, Demurrers, Wrongful Termination, Public Policy, Employment Relationships, At Will Employment, Duration of Employment, Exceptions, Tort Exceptions, Public Policy Violations, Contracts Law, Defenses, Breaches, Breach of Contract, Implied Contracts, Remedies, Damages, Punitive Damages, Torts, Types of Damages, Punitive Damages