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People v. Romac International

August 07, 2003


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia Civil Division (CA-7886-01) (Hon. Steffen W. Graae, Trial Judge)

Before Terry, Steadman and Ruiz, Associate Judges.

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

Submitted June 12, 2003

Appellant, Leslie Pope, a pro se litigant, sued the appellee, Romac International ("Romac"), a temporary staffing company, for breach of contract and wrongful discharge. She appeals the trial court's grant of summary judgment for appellee.

Pope first applied for temporary assignments with Romac on July 31, 1997. Romac hired Pope in M ay 1998 and assigned her to one of its clients, MCI, on a temporary basis as a financial analyst. Her assignment with MCI ended on October 20, 1998. Two days later, Pope filed for unemployment compensation at the Maryland Office of Unemployment Insurance (Maryland Unemployment Office). Upon receiving a Request for Separation Information from the Maryland Unemployment Office that noted that information provided "may affect the claimant's eligibility for benefits," Romac responded that Pope had been "discharged" for failure to follow instructions and work to the best of her ability, and noted that she had become ill during her tenure at MCI, which caused her to be absent a "few weeks in a row." *fn1 Romac also indicated on the form that after having been notified that her assignment at MCI would end in a week, Pope failed to show up for two days, at which time MCI told her not to bother returning for the last days of employment.

Pope's complaint claimed that Romac's actions constituted breach of contract and wrongful discharge, which caused her "financial hardship, anguish, pain, embarrassment, humiliation and indignity." Specifically, Pope alleged that Romac breached an "oral and written contract of employment that was modified and reinforced by certain policies, assurances and other express and implied statements that it was working to place her on other projects. She claims that notwithstanding those promises, Romac wrongfully terminated her employment and ceased all efforts to locate projects for her "without cause and in violation of Romac International policies, because she filed a claim for u nemployment compensation." Pope also claimed that Romac intentionally mischaracterized the reason for her discharge to avoid paying unemployment insurance.

After the close of discovery, Romac moved for summary judgment, arguing that because Pope was an at-will employee, Romac "possessed the right to terminate the working relationship at any time for any reason." Furthermore, Romac argued, there was no evidence that the appellant's at-will employment had been modified in any way.

The trial court found that because Pope's written agreement with Romac provided that employment would be "for no definite time period and may be terminated at any time," Pope was an at-will employee of Romac, whose employment could be terminated with or without cause. *fn2 See Strass v. Kaiser Found. Health Plan, 744 A.2d 1000, 1011-12 (D.C. 2000) (noting the presumption in the District of Columbia that employment without articulating a specific term of duration is considered terminable at the w ill of either party at any time). The trial court further found that the written agreement had not been amended by the general assurances of Romac's Senior Staffing Manager, Robin Andrews, and staffing employee, Kyung Nam, that they would be able to "get [her] something else" and "try to find something else" for her, as these statements were legally insufficient to create a binding offer of employment. The court found that these statem ents indicated not a breach, but a continued commitment to search for other opportunities on her behalf. The trial court determined, therefore, that Pope could not sustain a contractual action for wrongful discharge, and that Romac was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. *fn3

We agree with the trial court that the evidence presented, even if believed by the fact-finder, would not prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Romac breached the employment contract, or any modification of the same, or that, being an at-will employee, she was wrongfully discharged. See Adams v. George W. Cochran & Co., 597 A.2d 28, 33 (D.C. 1991).

The trial court did not, however, consider the appellant's claim that Romac's mischaracterization of her employment status as "discharged,"and the negative explanation of her performance thereafter, were intentionally made in order to reduce its contributions, and that they caused her to suffer financial hardship and other damages. Although Pope did not separately label this count, if Pope's allegations that Romac mischaracterized the nature of her termination or its cause are proven - as it appears was done in the course of the Maryland proceeding for unemployment compensation - they could make out a claim under legal theories other than the specific ones plead by this pro se plaintiff. See Herbin v. Hoeffel, 806 A.2d 186, 196 n.16 (D.C. 2002) (reversing dismissal of complaint for failure to state a claim where trial court did not address claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, noting that although pro se complaint mixed legal theories and harms, "it was clear enough"). *fn4 Though a well-plead complaint and the parties' submissions are helpful in assessing the viability of claims, summary judgment must be based on a review of the "entire record," giving the plaintiff "the benefit of all favorable inferences that can be drawn from the record." Reynolds v. Gateway Georgetown Condominium Ass'n., 482 A.2d 1248, 1251-52 (D.C. 1984) (citation om itted). In this case, we think that a comprehensive view of the complaint, deposition, and pleadings supports further proceedings on this claim.

Accordingly, we remand the case to enable the trial court to consider in the first instance the appellant's claim that Romac mischaracterized the nature and cause of her discharge and that she suffered damages as a result. *fn5

So ...

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