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02/19/93 KATRESSIA SMITH v. UNION LABOR LIFE

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA COURT OF APPEALS


February 19, 1993

KATRESSIA SMITH, APPELLANT
v.
UNION LABOR LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, APPELLEE

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Curtis E. von Kann, Trial Judge)

Before Ferren and Steadman, Associate Judges, and Pryor, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pryor

PRYOR, Senior Judge : Appellant Katressia Smith appeals from the District of Columbia Superior Court's grant of summary judgment which dismissed her complaint for wrongful discharge and tortious breach of employment contract against appellee, the Union Labor Life Insurance Company, under D.C. Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56 (c) (1991). Ms. Smith sought compensatory damages, back pay, reinstatement of employment and other related relief against her employer, Union Labor Life, claiming that: (1) she was hired as an upper-level management employee rather than an at-will employee; (2) that she was given an incorrect set of guidelines to follow regarding her absence from employment; (3) that an implied contract could be inferred from the language in the guidelines; and (4) that Union Labor Life wrongfully terminated her employment and intentionally caused her to suffer emotional distress.

After the close of discovery, the appellee filed its motion for summary judgment, which Ms. Smith opposed. In an order issued on September 23, 1991, Judge von Kann found that based on the record, "it was beyond dispute" that Ms. Smith was an at-will employee. Also, he concluded that the appellee "did not engage in extreme and outrageous conduct in connection with her termination."

I.

Ms. Smith was employed by the Union Labor Life Insurance Company ("Union Labor Life") as a cost analyst on January 4, 1984, and was promoted on February 19, 1986, to a claims referral analyst as a management position. On August 2, 1988, Ms. Smith sustained injuries in an automobile accident and was unable to perform the duties of her position. On September 14, 1988, Union Labor Life notified Ms. Smith by letter that she must complete a disability form by September 30, 1988, or face termination. The letter explained the company policy that whenever an employee was absent due to an illness for five consecutive days, that employee must submit a disability form.

Ms. Smith , 6 IER Cases 95, 97 (D.D.C. 1990).

While this jurisdiction recognizes that an implied contract may arise from the language of an employee handbook or manual, Washington Welfare Ass'n, Inc. v. Wheeler, 496 A.2d 613, 615 (D.C. 1985), an "employer, however, may effectively disclaim any implied contracts." Goos v. National Ass'n of Realtors, 715 F. Supp. 2, 4 (D.D.C. 1989). The legal effect of such a disclaimer is, in the first instance, a question for the court to decide. Id. Based on the disclaimer language contained in the Blue Handbook, and given no facts or circumstances indicating that the disclaimer was unconscionable or that the employer and employee had entered into some kind of agreement that superseded the disclaimer in the handbook, we conclude that appellant was a management employee at-will who could be discharged with or without cause. *fn2 See, e.g., id. (citation omitted).

4. Wrongful Discharge and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Claim

Finally, Ms. Smith claims that she was wrongfully discharged because she allegedly followed and fulfilled the policy guidelines for filing a disability form after five consecutive days of absence from employment. However, even if the record supported this contention, "having established that was an at-will employee of [appellee's], also prevails on the wrongful discharge claim. . . . the District of Columbia does not recognize this tort for at-will employees." Alameda, supra, 6 IER Cases at 98. Compare Sorrells, supra, 565 A.2d at 289 with Adams, supra, 597 A.2d at 34 (adopting narrow public policy exception to the at-will doctrine under which employee may sue former employer for wrongful discharge based on employee's refusal to violate statute or municipal regulation).

Similarly, Ms. Smith's claim that Union Labor Life's conduct was outrageous and that appellee intentionally caused her to suffer emotional distress also fails. This complained-of conduct simply does not remotely rise to the requisite level to sustain a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. See Waldon v. Covington, 415 A.2d 1070, 1076 (D.C. 1980) (liability may be imposed for "extreme and outrageous conduct intentionally or recklessly severe emotional distress to another") (internal quotation and citation omitted).

As mentioned above, Ms. Smith did not file a 12-I (k) response challenging appellee's summary judgment motion and consequently, failed to point to sufficient evidence in the record that would sustain her contention. Because Ms. Smith was an at-will employee, her claim is merely one of "dismissal without prior disciplinary procedures" and that "simply not satisfy the standard for liability" for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Schoen v. Consumers United Group, Inc., 670 F. Supp. 367, 379 (D.D.C. 1986). The record reveals that Union Labor Life's conduct in discharging Ms. Smith did not go "'beyond all possible bounds of decency and [was not] regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.'" Id. (quoting Waldon, supra, 415 A.2d at 1076).

Furthermore, Ms. Smith's claims do not meet the narrow public policy exception to the at-will termination doctrine whereby an at-will employee may sue his or her employer for wrongful discharge "when the sole reason for the discharge is the employee's refusal to violate the law, as expressed in a statute or municipal regulation." Adams, supra, 597 A.2d at 34. Cf. Gray v. Citizens Bank of Washington, 602 A.2d 1096, 1096-97 (D.C.) (public policy exception does not apply to wrongful discharge claim in which at-will employee was discharged for reporting illegal activities by other employees to his employer), reinstated on denial of reh'g, 609 A.2d 1143 (D.C. 1992).

III.

In sum, the materials presented to the trial court adequately demonstrated that appellee has met its burden of proving that no genuine issue of material fact exists. Appellant, on the other hand, has failed to identify any dispute as to material facts sufficient to present a genuine issue for trial. Graff, supra, 592 A.2d at 1042. Accordingly, we affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment which appellee is entitled to as a matter of law. Nader, supra, 408 A.2d at 48.

Affirmed.


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