Woolley v. Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc.
491 A.2d 1257 (N.J. 1985)
Wilntz, C. J.
Plaintiff, Richard Woolley, was hired by defendant, Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc., in October 1969, as an Engineering Section Head in defendant’s Central Engineering Department at Nutley. There was no written employment contract between plaintiff and defendant. Plaintiff began work in mid-November 1969. Sometime in December, plaintiff received and read the personnel manual on which his claims are based.
[The company’s personnel manual had eight pages;] five of the eight pages are devoted to “termination.” In addition to setting forth the purpose and policy of the termination section, it defines “the types of termination” as “layoff,” “discharge due to performance,” “discharge, disciplinary,” “retirement” and “resignation.” As one might expect, layoff is a termination caused by lack of work, retirement a termination caused by age, resignation a termination on the initiative of the employee, and discharge due to performance and discharge, disciplinary, are both terminations for cause. There is no category set forth for discharge without cause. The termination section includes “Guidelines for discharge due to performance,” consisting of a fairly detailed procedure to be used before an employee may be fired for cause. Preceding these definitions of the five categories of termination is a section on “Policy,” the first sentence of which provides: “It is the policy of Hoffmann-La Roche to retain to the extent consistent with company requirements, the services of all employees who perform their duties efficiently and effectively.”
In 1976, plaintiff was promoted, and in January 1977 he was promoted again, this latter time to Group Leader for the Civil Engineering, the Piping Design, the Plant Layout, and the Standards and Systems Sections. In March 1978, plaintiff was directed to write a report to his supervisors about piping problems in one of defendant’s buildings in Nutley. This report was written and submitted to plaintiff’s immediate supervisor on April 5, 1978. On May 3, 1978, stating that the General Manager of defendant’s Corporate Engineering Department had lost confidence in him, plaintiff’s supervisors requested his resignation. Following this, by letter dated May 22, 1978, plaintiff was formally asked for his resignation, to be effective July 15, 1978.
Plaintiff refused to resign. Two weeks later defendant again requested plaintiff’s resignation, and told him he would be fired if he did not resign. Plaintiff again declined, and he was fired in July.
Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging breach of contract.…The gist of plaintiff’s breach of contract claim is that the express and implied promises in defendant’s employment manual created a contract under which he could not be fired at will, but rather only for cause, and then only after the procedures outlined in the manual were followed. Plaintiff contends that he was not dismissed for good cause, and that his firing was a breach of contract.
Defendant’s motion for summary judgment was granted by the trial court, which held that the employment manual was not contractually binding on defendant, thus allowing defendant to terminate plaintiff’s employment at will. The Appellate Division affirmed. We granted certification.
The employer’s contention here is that the distribution of the manual was simply an expression of the company’s “philosophy” and therefore free of any possible contractual consequences. The former employee claims it could reasonably be read as an explicit statement of company policies intended to be followed by the company in the same manner as if they were expressed in an agreement signed by both employer and employees.…
This Court has long recognized the capacity of the common law to develop and adapt to current needs.…The interests of employees, employers, and the public lead to the conclusion that the common law of New Jersey should limit the right of an employer to fire an employee at will.
In order for an offer in the form of a promise to become enforceable, it must be accepted. Acceptance will depend on what the promisor bargained for: he may have bargained for a return promise that, if given, would result in a bilateral contract, both promises becoming enforceable. Or he may have bargained for Saylor some action or nonaction that, if given or withheld, would render his promise enforceable as a unilateral contract. In most of the cases involving an employer’s personnel policy manual, the document is prepared without any negotiations and is voluntarily distributed to the workforce by the employer. It seeks no return promise from the employees. It is reasonable to interpret it as seeking continued work from the employees, who, in most cases, are free to quit since they are almost always employees at will, not simply in the sense that the employer can fire them without cause, but in the sense that they can quit without breaching any obligation. Thus analyzed, the manual is an offer that seeks the formation of a unilateral contract—the employees’ bargained-for action needed to make the offer binding being their continued work when they have no obligation to continue.
The unilateral contract analysis is perfectly adequate for that employee who was aware of the manual and who continued to work intending that continuation to be the action in exchange for the employer’s promise; it is even more helpful in support of that conclusion if, but for the employer’s policy manual, the employee would have quit. See generally M. Petit, “Modern Unilateral Contracts,” 63 Boston Univ. Law Rev. 551 (1983) (judicial use of unilateral contract analysis in employment cases is widespread).
…All that this opinion requires of an employer is that it be fair. It would be unfair to allow an employer to distribute a policy manual that makes the workforce believe that certain promises have been made and then to allow the employer to renege on those promises. What is sought here is basic honesty: if the employer, for whatever reason, does not want the manual to be capable of being construed by the court as a binding contract, there are simple ways to attain that goal. All that need be done is the inclusion in a very prominent position of an appropriate statement that there is no promise of any kind by the employer contained in the manual; that regardless of what the manual says or provides, the employer promises nothing and remains free to change wages and all other working conditions without having to consult anyone and without anyone’s agreement; and that the employer continues to have the absolute power to fire anyone with or without good cause.
Reversed and remanded for trial.
- What did Woolley do to show his acceptance of the terms of employment offered to him?
- In part of the case not included here, the court notes that Mr. Woolley died “before oral arguments on this case.” How can there be any damages if the plaintiff has died? Who now has any case to pursue?
- The court here is changing the law of employment in New Jersey. It is making case law, and the rule here articulated governs similar future cases in New Jersey. Why did the court make this change? Why is it relevant that the court says it would be easy for an employer to avoid this problem?
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