O'Brien v. Permasteelisa North America Corp.
ORDER granting 11 Motion for Summary Judgment (Written Opinion) Signed by Senior Judge David S. Doty on 4/4/2017. (DLO)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF MINNESOTA
Civil No. 16-869(DSD/HB)
Permasteelisa North America Corp.,
Ryan H. Ahlberg, Esq. and Ahlberg Law, PLLC, 333 Washington
Avenue North, Suite 300, Minneapolis, MN 55401, counsel for
Alec J. Beck, Esq. and Ford & Harrison LLP, 901 Marquette
Avenue, Suite 1500, Minneapolis, MN 55402, counsel for
This matter is before the court upon the motion for summary
judgment by defendant Permasteelisa North America Corp (PNAC).
Based on a review of the file, record, and proceedings herein, and
for the following reasons, the court grants the motion.
This employment dispute arises out of PNAC’s decision to fire
plaintiff Erin O’Brien.1
PNAC employed O’Brien as a Document
Controller at its Mendota Heights location from March through
O’Brien’s direct supervisor was Mileah Mott, whose
In light of O’Brien’s voluntary dismissal of her Minnesota
Human Rights Act (MHRA) claim, the court addresses only those facts
relevant to the promissory estoppel claim.
supervisor was department director Derick Koprek.
Mott present, gave O’Brien standard performance reviews on April 17
and May 26.
Koprek Aff. ¶ 3.
During those reviews, Koprek and
Mott informed O’Brien that she needed to improve the accuracy of
her work, increase her confidence, and spend less time on her
Id.; id. Ex. A, at 1, 3, 7.
In August, Koprek continued to have concerns with the quality
representative, Amelia Dube.
Id. ¶ 4.
Dube recommended that
O’Brien participate in a performance improvement plan (PIP) and
forwarded a PIP document to Koprek.
Id. ¶¶ 4-5.
The PIP informed
O’Brien that she must improve her attention to detail, reliability,
and work ethic and that her failure to do so could lead to
termination. See Kyle Aff. Ex. A. On September 19, O’Brien signed
Id.; see Koprek Aff. ¶ 5.
O’Brien subsequently told Cara Peterson, another manager at
the Mendota Heights office, that she was uncomfortable with the
plan because she thought it was too vague.2
id. Ex. B.
Kyle Aff. ¶ 5; see
Peterson informed Emily Kyle, a human resources
supervisor, about O’Brien’s concerns and that O’Brien had other
complaints that needed to be addressed.
Id. ¶ 5; see id. Ex. B.
Following her conversation with Peterson, on September 22, Kyle had
The record does not indicate whether Peterson’s managerial
role was related to O’Brien’s position or why O’Brien went to
Peterson with her concerns.
Kyle Aff. ¶ 6.
At the meeting, O’Brien
complained about Mott’s behavior toward her, and Kyle instructed
O’Brien to put her complaints in writing.
On September 23, O’Brien emailed her complaints to Kyle.
¶ 7; see id. Ex. C.
Among other things, O’Brien complained that
Mott had slammed her fists on her desk, cursed at her, and called
her and other co-workers “retards.”
Id. Ex. C.
Kyle and Dube
investigated O’Brien’s complaints, and Mott admitted to using
profanity and slamming her fists on O’Brien’s desk but denied using
the word “retarded.”
Id. Ex. F.
Kyle and Dube gave Mott a written
Id. Exs. G, H.
On September 25, in an attempt to address O’Brien’s concerns
about the first PIP, human resources sent an amended PIP to Koprek.
Kyle Aff. ¶ 8; see id. Ex. D.
Koprek met with O’Brien to go over
the new PIP, but O’Brien refused to sign it.
Koprek Aff. ¶ 6.
was still expected to improve her performance, however.
On October 9, Koprek and Dube met with O’Brien to discuss her
progress under the PIP and noted several areas where they believed
O’Brien’s performance continued to be deficient.
see id. Ex. A. at 8.
for October 23.
Koprek Aff. ¶ 7;
The next PIP progress meeting was scheduled
Koprek Dep. 15:1-5.
By October 20, however,
Koprek and Jason Serbousek, the design department manager, believed
that O’Brien’s attitude had worsened and that she was not meeting
the goals of the PIP.
Kyle Aff. ¶ 11.
As a result, on October 20,
Dube, Kyle, Koprek, and Serbousek scheduled a meeting with O’Brien
at the end of the day without advance notice.
141:14-25; Koprek Dep. at 19:18-20:6.
O’Brien Dep. at
At the meeting, they
attempted to discuss the PIP with O’Brien, but she left abruptly,
apparently because she was uncomfortable with the impromptu nature
of the meeting.
O’Brien Dep. at 142:17-143:4; Koprek Dep. at
20:18-21. After the meeting, Koprek, Kyle, and Serbousek concluded
that it did not make sense to continue to pursue the PIP.
Aff. ¶ 9.
Kyle then consulted with David Halpert, director of
human resources for North America, and they decided to fire
Id. ¶¶ 9-10; Kyle Aff. ¶¶ 12-13.
On March 8, 2016, O’Brien filed suit against PNAC in state
promissory estoppel based on PNAC’s anti-harassment policy, and
PNAC timely removed.3
PNAC now moves for summary judgment.
At the hearing, O’Brien conceded that the MHRA claim should
be dismissed with prejudice. The court, therefore, only addresses
the promissory estoppel claim.
Standard of Review
“The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows
that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the
movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”
Fed. R. Civ.
P. 56(a); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).
A fact is material only when its resolution affects the outcome of
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248
A dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that it could
cause a reasonable jury to return a verdict for either party.
id. at 252 (“The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in
support of the plaintiff’s position will be insufficient ....”).
On a motion for summary judgment, the court views all evidence
and inferences in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party.
Id. at 255.
The nonmoving party, however, may not rest upon mere
denials or allegations in the pleadings but must set forth specific
facts sufficient to raise a genuine issue for trial.
U.S. at 324.
A party asserting that a genuine dispute exists - or
cannot exist - about a material fact must cite “particular parts of
materials in the record.”
Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A).
plaintiff cannot support each essential element of a claim, the
court must grant summary judgment because a complete failure of
proof regarding an essential element necessarily renders all other
Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23.
sufficiently “clear and definite” to form the basis of a promissory
The court agrees.
“Promissory estoppel is an equitable doctrine that implies a
contract in law when none exists in fact.” Martens v. Minn. Mining
& Mfg. Co., 616 N.W.2d 732, 746 (Minn. 2000) (citation and internal
quotation marks omitted).
To state a claim under promissory
estoppel, a plaintiff must prove that “(1) a clear and definite
promise was made, (2) the promisor intended to induce reliance and
the promisee in fact relied to his or her detriment, and (3) the
promise must be enforced to prevent injustice.”
O’Brien bases her promissory estoppel claim of PNAC’s antiharassment policy.
The policy states that:
Employees may bring their good faith complaints of
harassment without fear of retaliation. [PNAC] will not
tolerate retaliation against any employee who, in good
faith, complains of harassment or provides information in
connection with any complaint. Any person who believes
The court need not address whether the promissory estoppel
claim is preempted by the MHRA because O’Brien, in conceding her
MHRA claim, is no longer asserting her MHRA and promissory estoppel
claims simultaneously. See Brodhead v. Knife River CorporationNorth Cent., No. 14-548, 2015 WL 4429352, at *12 (D. Minn. July 20,
2015) (“[W]ith respect to the preclusion of separate common law
negligence actions, courts have held that ‘a plaintiff may
simultaneously pursue claims under the MHRA and common law
negligence that arise from the same underlying facts,’ only if the
plaintiff’s negligence claims are ‘founded on a duty of care
independent from duties owed under the MHRA.’” (emphasis
added)(quoting Burns v. Winroc Corp., 565 F. Supp. 2d 1056, 1069
(D. Minn. 2008)).
they have been subjected to retaliation should use the
complaint procedure. Any employee found to have engaged
in retaliatory conduct shall be subject to disciplinary
Beck Aff. Ex. B, at 3.
promise is determined as a matter of law.
Martens, 616 N.W.2d at
“Vague statements and statements of policy generally are not
clear and definite promises.”
Sorin Grp. USA, Inc. v. St. Jude
Med, S.C., Inc., 176 F. Supp. 3d 814, 834 (D. Minn. 2016); see also
Pine River State Bank v. Mettille, 333 N.W.2d 622, 630 (Minn. 1983)
(holding that employee handbook language did not constitute an
offer because it was “no more than a general statement of policy”).
Here, PNAC’s anti-retaliation provision merely informs employees of
what the law requires; it does not bind PNAC to any specific course
of action, nor does it restrict PNAC’s ability to terminate its
employees. Indeed, the policy only seems to cover actions taken by
employees, not PNAC.
See Beck Aff. Ex. B, at 3 (emphasis added)
(“Any employee found to have engaged in retaliatory conduct shall
be subject to disciplinary action ....”).
Because PNAC’s anti-
harassment policy is not a clear and definite promise, O’Brien’s
promissory estoppel claim fails as a matter of law.
summary judgment is warranted.
As a result,
Accordingly, based on the above, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that:
Defendant’s motion for summary judgment [ECF No. 11] is
The case is dismissed with prejudice.
LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.
Dated: April 4, 2017
s/David S. Doty
David S. Doty, Judge
United States District Court
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