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Dantley v. Howard University

June 27, 2002

PAULETTE DANTLEY, APPELLANT,
v.
HOWARD UNIVERSITY, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-9084-97) (Hon. Gregory E. Mize, Trial Judge)

Before Ruiz and Reid, Associate Judges and Pryor, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge

Submitted May 29, 2002

On June 26, 2000, the Superior Court entered summary judgment on appellant Paulette Dantley's breach of contract claim against Howard University. On appeal, she argues that summary judgment in favor of Howard was inappropriate as a matter of law, because her contract with Howard University was broken when she was terminated pursuant to a reduction-in-force. Determining that summary judgment was inappropriate in this case, we reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

FACTUAL SUMMARY

From 1988 to 1994, Ms. Dantley was employed as an Admissions Assistant at Howard University. Upon employment, Ms. Dantley received a Howard University Employee Handbook ("Handbook") for non-faculty. The Handbook contained a disclaimer clause declaring that "[t]his document is not to be construed as a contract." Handbook at ii. The Handbook also governed disciplinary proceedings for employees.

In June 1994, Howard University's Board of Trustees decided to restructure the workforce. A Workforce Restructuring Plan was devised with the goal of eliminating 620 positions. On November 9, 1994, the University informed Ms. Dantley that her position was being eliminated.

On November 25, 1997, Ms. Dantley filed a complaint alleging that the Handbook constituted a contract for employment. On July 27, 1999, Howard University moved for summary judgment, arguing that a contract did not exist as a matter of law because the Handbook itself asserted that it is not a contract. On September 10, 1999, the Superior Court denied the motion because there was a "triable issue of fact as to the existence of an implied contract for Plaintiff's continued employment." It relied upon United States ex rel. Yesudian v. Howard Univ., 332 U.S. App. D.C. 56, 153 F.3d 731 (1998), ("Yesudian"), where the D.C. Circuit, applying District law, concluded that the Handbook, notwithstanding its disclaimers, could be construed as an implied contract. 332 U.S. App. D.C. at 72-73, 153 F.3d at 747-48. The court thus held that summary judgment was inappropriate. Id.

Six days after the Superior Court denied summary judgment in the case before us, we decided Roberts v. Howard Univ., 740 A.2d 16 (D.C. 1999). Roberts involved an allegation under the same Howard University Handbook that was at issue in Yesudian, supra. We upheld the dismissal of the plaintiff's complaint in Roberts because he had not exhausted his remedies under the governing collective bargaining agreement. 740 A.2d at 20. In an incidental comment in a footnote, however, we stated:

Even if the [Howard University H]andbook did apply to Roberts, it did not constitute a contract. Although the issue of whether a personnel manual creates contractual rights is usually a question for the jury, any implied contract rights created by a personnel manual can be disclaimed. The employee handbook clearly states that it is not an employment contract. That ends the matter. Id. at 19 n.1 (citations omitted).

Armed with Roberts, Howard University moved for relief from the order denying summary judgment on June 6, 2000. This time, the trial court agreed, declaring:

Even though the foregoing quotation is dicta, this court is loathe to ignore the appellate court's declaration or to conclude that it is less authoritative statement of District of Columbia jurisprudence than what was enunciated in the Yesudian case. To the contrary, this court concludes that footnote 1 in Roberts is the freshest and most significant legal guidance available.

ANALYSIS

"In reviewing a grant of a summary judgment motion, `we must assess the record independently . . . [and view it] in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.'" Kelley v. Broadmoor Coop. Apartments, 676 A.2d 453, 456 (D.C. 1996) (quoting Walton v. District of Columbia, 670 A.2d 1346, 1353 (D.C. 1996) (reference omitted)) (alteration in the original). "A motion for summary judgment is properly granted where the `pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, . . . show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a ...


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