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ROBINSON v. DETROIT NEWS

June 27, 2002

TIA ROBINSON, PLAINTIFF,
V.
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

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter comes before the court on the defendant's motion for summary judgment. Tia Robinson ("the plaintiff" or "Ms. Robinson") brings this action for alleged breach of contract, promissory estoppel, breach of the covenant of good faith, and gender discrimination in violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act ("DCHRA"), D.C. Code § 2-1401.01 et seq. Specifically, the plaintiff claims that her dismissal as an employee of The Detroit News, Inc. ("the defendant") was the result of the defendant's failure to comply with contractual agreements and discriminatory treatment. For the reasons that follow, the court denies the defendant's motion for summary judgment on the promissory estoppel claim and grants the defendant's motion for summary judgment on the claims for breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith, and gender discrimination. The court also strikes the plaintiff's surreply and denies the plaintiff's motion to amend the complaint.

II. BACKGROUND

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 6.

WUSA hired two male account executives during Ms. Robinson's fifth month on the job. Id. at 8. WUSA expected the male account executives to spend most of their time on the transactional-accounts component of their jobs, unlike the plaintiff. Id. The male account executives also differed in that they had extensive sales experience but none in television, compared with Ms. Robinson's past experience specifically in selling television advertising to new business. Id. at 8-9. Because WUSA does not have a standard training program for its account executives, the defendant contends that it provided functionally equivalent training to all three new hires. Id. at 9; Def.'s Statement at 6.

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.

III. ANALYSIS

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 citations omitted).

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 overheard.

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 ...


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