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The appellate court reviews summary judgment decisions de novo, using the same standard as the trial court. Under Vt. R. Civ. P. 56, summary judgment is appropriate when the undisputed facts show that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Rule 56(a). The court will accept as true the allegations made in opposition to the motion if they are supported by the record. The nonmoving party receives the benefit of all reasonable doubts and inferences.
Defendant Monaghan Safar Ducham PLLC hired plaintiff William Pettersen as an associate attorney in February 2016. Throughout his nearly two-year employment with defendant, plaintiff believed that he was underpaid. When defendant's managing partner initially offered the job to plaintiff, plaintiff expressed concern with the salary but nevertheless accepted the job. Plaintiff signed an employment letter stating that his employment was at will, incorporating the above starting salary, and noting the potential for bonuses based on his performance and defendant's revenues. After plaintiff worked for defendant for about six months, defendant conducted a performance review and gave plaintiff a nine-percent raise, but plaintiff was still not satisfied. Throughout his time working for defendant, plaintiff looked for other jobs in Vermont. Soon after the performance review, plaintiff spoke with the managing partner regarding his compensation concerns and told him that he was uncomfortable with his salary and sought more information regarding defendant's typical partnership track. After receiving a raise, plaintiff decided that he needed to leave his job with defendant because he believed that defendant breached its partnership track promise to him. Plaintiff wrote a letter to the managing partner asserting that he believed he had legal claims against defendant and offering to settle. But defendant rejected his settlement offer, and terminated plaintiff’s employment. Plaintiff filed suit, asserting claims for promissory estoppel, unjust enrichment, intentional misrepresentation, wrongful termination, defamation, and tortious interference with contractual relations. Defendant moved for summary judgment on all claims. The court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment. This appeal followed.
Did the trial court err in granting defendant law firm’s summary judgment on plaintiff’s claims?
The court affirmed the judgment and held that defendant law firm was entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff former associate's promissory estoppel claim, as the facts did not support plaintiff's contention that he was promised a specific five-year compensation plan when defendant’s managing partner at best expressed his opinion that it was reasonable that plaintiff might have the opportunity to become a partner and earn $100,000 annually in five years. The court also held that defendant was not unjustly enriched, as it paid plaintiff his agreed salary along with bonuses and raises. That, even assuming that plaintiff was terminated, his termination did not violate public policy, as his threatened lawsuit against defendant involved his own future compensation and promotion opportunities and did not implicate any public concern; moreover, the court ruled that he raised his claims after announcing his intent to leave and while attempting to negotiate a severance package.