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ROBINSON v. DETROIT NEWS
June 27, 2002
TIA ROBINSON, PLAINTIFF,
THE DETROIT NEWS, INC., DEFENDANT.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ricardo M. Urbina, United States District Judge.
MEMORANDUM OPINION DENYING IN PART AND GRANTING IN PART THE
DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT; STRIKING THE PLAINTIFF'S
SURREPLY; DENYING THE PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO AMEND THE COMPLAINT
Ms. Robinson brings this action against her former employer, The
Detroit News, Inc., for breach of contract, promissory estoppel, breach
of the covenant of good faith, and unlawful employment discrimination.
Am. Compl. ("Compl.") at 3-5. Ms. Robinson's claims arise from her firing
in January 2001 as an account executive at W*USA-TV Channel 9, a division
of The Detroit News, Inc. ("WUSA"). Id. at 3.
Before her employment with The Detroit News, Ms. Robinson worked at the
CBS-owned station, WJZ-TV in Baltimore as an account executive from
November 1998 to May 2000. Id. at 2. Her responsibilities at WJZ-TV
consisted primarily of marketing and new business development. Pl.'s
Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Opp'n") at 1.
In March 2000, Ms. Robinson discussed the availability of an
account-executive position at WUSA with Joel Vilmenay, the local sales
manager for WUSA. Pl.'s Opp'n at 1. Account executives at WUSA are
responsible for both generating advertising sales to new customers of
WUSA and negotiating advertising sales called "transactional accounts."
Def.'s Statement of Material Facts Not in Dispute ("Def.'s Statement") at
1. In addition, "[w]hile all account executives have responsibilities for
both transactional and new business, some are given greater
responsibility in one area." Id. at 2 (citing Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. 2
(Downey Dep.) at 32-33).
The principal factual allegations are as follows. Ms. Robinson did not
have significant experience with "transactional" business, but both
Dianne Downey, WUSA's Vice President of Sales, and Joel Vilmenay, Ms.
Robinson's direct supervisor, acknowledge that they assured her that when
The Detroit News hired Ms. Robinson, she would receive the appropriate
training. Mot. for Summ. J. at 3-4. Ms. Downey and Mr. Vilmenay did not
provide training specifics, but Ms. Robinson accepted the position under
the assumption that WUSA would provide some form of training to help her
conduct transactional business. Id. at 4-5. WUSA employed Ms. Robinson as
an "at-will" employee and thus there was no written or oral agreement for
any definite term of employment. Id. WUSA wanted Ms. Robinson to focus
her efforts on new advertising sales, for which she agreed she required
no training. Id. at 5. Ms. Robinson began receiving informal training in
transactional business during her first month of employment. Id. at 6;
Pl.'s Statement of Material Facts in Dispute ("Pl.'s Statement") at 3-4.
Mr. Vilmenay gave the plaintiff a list of glossary terms and math
exercises, and gave her some on-the-job training. Mot. for Summ. J. at
After six months, WUSA fired Ms. Robinson, stating that she had
performance problems, namely her inability to grasp mathematical concepts
and her failure to generate new business. Mot. for Summ. J. at 10. The
plaintiff filed suit in D.C. Superior Court but the defendant removed the
case to federal court. Notice of Removal dated May 8, 2001. The plaintiff
filed her first amended complaint with defendant's consent, which
corrected the name of defendant Gannett and added defendant The Detroit
News, Inc. Consent Mot. to Amend Compl. dated June 7, 2001.
Subsequently, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss the first amended
complaint or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. The plaintiff
responded with an opposition, a proposed surreply, and an additional
motion to amend. Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Reply to Pl.'s Opp'n to Mot. for
Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Surreply") dated May 20, 2002; Mot. to Amend Compl.
dated May 21, 2002. The court now turns to the pending motions.
A. Legal Standard for Summary Judgment
Summary judgment is appropriate when "the pleadings, depositions,
answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the
affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any
material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a
matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c); see also Celotex Corp. v.
Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Diamond v. Atwood, 43 F.3d 1538, 1540
(D.C. Cir. 1995). To determine which facts are "material," a court must
look to the substantive law on which each claim rests. Anderson v.
Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A "genuine issue" is one
whose resolution could establish an element of a claim or defense and,
therefore, affect the outcome of the action. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322;
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.
In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must draw all
justifiable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor and accept the
nonmoving party's evidence as true. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. A
nonmoving party, however, must establish more than "the mere existence of
a scintilla of evidence" in support of its position. Id. at 252. To
prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must show that
the nonmoving party "fail[ed] to make a showing sufficient to establish
the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which
that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at
322. By pointing to the absence of evidence tendered by the nonmoving
party, a moving party may succeed on summary judgment. Id.
In addition, the nonmoving party may not rely solely on allegations or
conclusory statements. Greene v. Dalton, 164 F.3d 671, 675 (D.C. Cir.
1999); Harding v. Gray, 9 F.3d 150, 154 (D.C. Cir. 1993). Rather, the
nonmoving party must present specific facts that would enable a
reasonable jury to find in its favor. Greene, 164 F.3d at 675. If the
evidence "is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary
judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (internal
Finally, the D.C. Circuit has cautioned that because it is difficult
for a plaintiff to establish proof of discrimination, the court should
view summary-judgment motions in such cases with special caution. Aka v.
Washington Hosp. Ctr., 116 F.3d 876, 879-80 (D.C. Cir. 1997), overturned
on other grounds, 156 F.3d 1284 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (en banc); see also
Johnson v. Digital Equip. Corp., 836 F. Supp. 14, 18 (D.D.C. 1993).
B. The Court Allows the Promissory Estoppel Claim to Proceed
The plaintiff alleges that the defendant promised to train her
sufficiently in transactional business if she were to accept the job.*fn1
Pl.'s Opp'n at 4-5. The court determines that a genuine issue of material
fact exists as to whether there is an actionable claim for promissory
estoppel. For purposes of summary judgment, a plaintiff satisfies her
burden for a promissory estoppel claim if she demonstrates a dispute as
to a material fact with regard to the following elements: "that the
[promisor] made a promise, that [the promisee] suffered injury due to
reasonable reliance on the promise and that enforcement of the promise
would be in the public interest and would prevent injustice." District of
Columbia v. McGregor Properties, Inc., 479 A.2d 1270, 1273 (D.C. 1984);
see also Oates v. Teamster Affiliates Pension Plan, 482 F. Supp. 481, 488
(D.D.C. 1979); Pop's Cones, Inc. v. Resorts Int'l Hotel, Inc.,
704 A.2d 1321, 1324 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1998).
First, contrary to the defendant's assertions that it never made a
promise, the plaintiff argues that the defendant made an oral promise
guaranteeing that it would provide her with adequate training. Pl.'s
Opp'n at 1-2; Mot. for Summ. J. at 5. Moreover, the plaintiff's argument
does not merely rely on allegations or conclusory statements. Rather, she
describes three specific incidents when the defendant promised to train
her in transactional negotiations. Pl.'s Opp'n at 1-2. First, the
plaintiff claims that Ms. Downey assured the plaintiff that Mr. Vilmenay
would train her. Id.; Mot. for Summ. J. at 4. Then, Mr. Vilmenay
allegedly told the plaintiff he would teach her to conduct transactional
business. Pl.'s Opp'n at 2; Def.'s Statement at 2. Finally, Dan Sahd,
another account executive with WUSA who accompanied Mr. Vilmenay to the
plaintiff's second interview, allegedly heard Mr. Vilmenay state that "he
would give [the plaintiff] the training necessary to complete the job."
Pl.'s Opp'n Ex. E (Sahd Dep.) at 8. The defendant argues that even if it
did make a promise, it remains unenforceable because it did not express
specific conduct or a specified result. Mot. for Summ. J. at 13.
This is not dispositive for the purposes of summary judgment when the
question of whether a promise was made still remains in dispute. See
McGregor Properties, Inc., 479 A.2d at 1273. "We agree that, for purposes
of estoppel, a
promise need not be as specific and definite as a
contract, . . . but in the final analysis there must be a promise."
Bender v. Design Store Corp., 404 A.2d 194, 196 (D.C. 1979). The
revisions in the Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 90 (1979)
omitting the language "of a definite and substantial character" also
argue against strictly requiring a definite promise.*fn2 Restatement
(Second) § 90. In this case, the issue of whether a promise was made
will be a question of fact for a jury to determine when weighing Mr.
Vilmenay's testimony against the plaintiff's testimony and what Mr. Sahd
Second, the court concludes that there is a genuine issue of material
fact in dispute as to whether the defendant made the promise with the
expectation that the promise would be relied on. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c);
McGregor Properties, Inc., 479 A.2d at 1273. The defendant agrees that
the plaintiff understood and believed that she would receive some
training once she accepted the job. Mot. for Summ. J. at 5. Despite the
absence of specificity, "Vilmenay promised [the plaintiff] training in
transactional business." Def.'s Reply at 4. The fact that the defendant
anticipated that the plaintiff would require some training raises
legitimate questions about whether the ...