Saturday, March 20, 2021
The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed the grant of summary judgment against an associate attorney who had sued his former law firm on a variety of theories premised on his belief that he had been undercompensated for his work.
Defendant hired plaintiff as an associate attorney in February 2016. Throughout his nearly two-year employment with defendant, plaintiff believed that he was underpaid.
His concerns came to a head and led to his termination
In February 2019, plaintiff filed suit, asserting claims for promissory estoppel, unjust enrichment, intentional misrepresentation, wrongful termination, defamation, and tortious interference with contractual relations. As relevant to this appeal, he first alleged that defendant promised him “a partnership-track position that would earn compensation of $100,000 within five years” and that he would receive “larger raises each of those years.” He argued that he relied on this promise and continued to work for defendant when he otherwise would have left, and thus sought recovery under a promissory estoppel theory. Next, he argued that defendant was unjustly enriched by his work because it was inequitable for defendant to benefit from plaintiff’s work and billable hours under these circumstances. Third, he contended that Attorney Monaghan’s statement—that plaintiff’s goal of making partner and earning $100,000 in five years was “reasonable”—constituted an intentional misrepresentation because defendant never intended to make plaintiff a partner, but Attorney Monaghan made the statement to induce plaintiff to continue working for defendant. Finally, he asserted that defendant’s decision to fire him after he raised his legal claims in the April 2018 letter violated public policy. Defendant moved for summary judgment on all claims
There was no enforceable promise made or actionable misrepresentation
At best, Attorney Monaghan was expressing his opinion that it was reasonable that plaintiff might have the opportunity to become a partner and earn $100,000 annually in five years.
Nor was there unjust enrichment
there are no facts showing that plaintiff conferred an uncompensated benefit on defendant here. Defendant paid plaintiff the agreed salary for the work that he was hired to perform, and plaintiff even received numerous bonuses and raises. The record does not show that he took on any additional work beyond the scope of his employment that could be considered uncompensated. This latter fact distinguishes this case from the cases plaintiff cites in support of his argument; in each instance, the employee furnished an uncompensated benefit on the employer.
Public policy claim
Plaintiff asks us to conclude that public policy prohibits an employer from firing an employee in response to the employee’s threat to sue the employer. Plaintiff argues that there are several public policies violated when an employer fires an employee in response to a lawsuit, including the employee’s rights to access the courts, to raise claims against an employer, and to be free from retaliation for raising such claims.
we need not determine the availability or scope of this type of wrongful termination claim under Vermont law because we conclude that plaintiff has not presented facts tending to show that his termination violated a “clear and compelling public policy” such that defendant’s conduct was “cruel or shocking to the average person’s conception of justice.”
...Here, plaintiff’s threatened lawsuit against defendant involved his own future compensation and promotion opportunities and thus does not implicate any public concern.