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Goff-Hamel v. Obstetricians & Gynecologists, P.C. - 256 Neb. 19, 588 N.W.2d 798 (1999)

Rule:

When employment is not for a definite term and there are no contractual, statutory, or constitutional restrictions upon the right of discharge, an employer may lawfully discharge an employee whenever and for whatever cause it chooses

Facts:

Goff-Hamel worked for Hastings Family Planning for 11 years. Prior to leaving Hastings, Goff-Hamel was earning $24,000 plus the following benefits: six weeks' paid maternity leave, six weeks' vacation, 12 paid holidays, 12 sick days, an educational reimbursement, and medical and dental insurance coverage.

In July 1993, Goff-Hamel met with representatives of Obstetricians regarding the possibility of employment. Present at the meeting were Janet Quackenbush, the office manager; Dr. George Adam, a part owner of Obstetricians; and Larry Draper, a consultant of Obstetricians involved in personnel decisions. Adam had approached Goff-Hamel the prior month about working for him as a patient relations and outreach coordinator at Obstetricians. Goff-Hamel initially declined the offer, explaining that she had made commitments to do some training in the fall and to hire and help train a new bookkeeper. Adam subsequently spoke to Goff-Hamel, asking her to reconsider and whether she was ready to "jump ship and come work for him." Goff-Hamel told Adam she would be interested ni hearing some details, and an interview was set for July 27 at Adam's office.

At the meeting, Adam represented to Goff-Hamel that the position would be full time and would start at a salary of $10 per hour and that she would be provided two weeks' paid vacation, three or four paid holidays, uniforms, and an educational stipend. A retirement plan would start after the end of the second year, retroactive to the end of the first year. The job would not provide health insurance.

Goff-Hamel was offered a job with Obstetricians at that interview, and she accepted the job offer at that time. She expressed concern that she be given time to finish some projects at Hastings, and it was agreed that she would start her employment on October 4. Goff-Hamel gave notice to Hastings in August, informing them that she would be resigning to take a job with Obstetricians. Subsequently, Goff-Hamel went to Obstetricians' office and was provided with uniforms for her job. She was given a copy of her schedule for the first week of work, but did not receive a copy of the employee handbook. On October 3, 1993, Goff-Hamel was told by Draper that she should not report to work the next morning as had been planned. Draper told her that Janel Foote, the wife of a part owner of Obstetricians, Dr. Terry Foote, opposed the hiring of Goff-Hamel.

The trial court found that there were no facts in dispute and that Goff-Hamel had not turned down any other employment opportunities between July and October 1993. The court found that she had terminated her employment at Hastings in reliance on an offer of employment from Obstetricians; however, the prospective employment agreement was not for a specific term of employment. The court noted that Goff-Hamel sought replacement employment, but was unable to obtain employment until April 1995, when she was employed part time at the rate of $11 per hour. The trial court concluded that since Goff-Hamel was an employee at will, her employment could be terminated at any time, including before she began working. The court concluded that under either contract law or promissory estoppel, Obstetricians was entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. Goff-Hamel sought further review.

Issue:

Can a prospective employee, who had given notice and quit her prior employment, maintain a claim for breach of contract where her employment was terminated the day before her start date?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

On review, the appellate court held that the lower court correctly determined that Goff-Hamel could not bring a claim for breach of t contract because her employment was at will. However, acknowledging that promissory estoppel could be asserted in connection with an offer of at-will employment, the appellate court found that the lower court erred in granting summary judgment for Obstetricians. The appellate court stated that promissory estoppel was appropriate because Goff-Hamel acted to her detriment to avail herself of the promised employment. Obstetricians offered her employment but refused to honor its promise of employment. Furthermore, Goff-Hamel relied upon the promise of employment to her detriment when she terminated her employment of 11 years in order to accept a position with Obstetricians. Therefore, the lower court should have granted summary judgment in favor of Goff-Hamel on the issue of liability. The court reversed the judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.

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