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Kuchta v. Great Gorge Resort, Inc.

A-0805-02T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2004) (Unpublished)

EMPLOYER-EMPLOYEE; RETALIATION—An employer’s right to freely fire an at will employee is limited if doing so would be contrary to a clear mandate of public policy, but that concept does not embrace matters solely of private concern to the employee or to a limited group of employees.

An employee worked for a ski resort for twenty-five years . There was never a written employment contract. He never was provided with an employee manual or any writing setting out the terms and duration of his employment. Despite his job performance ratings always being “satisfactory,” he was fired. He filed suit, alleging wrongful termination, retaliatory termination, and breach of contract. He lost on summary judgment.

On appeal, the Appellate Division pointed out that the employee admitted he was an at-will employee who could be terminated with or without cause. The employee claimed, however, that statements made by the resort’s president gave him an enforceable right to continued employment. Specifically, when he attended meetings discussing the resort’s downsizing project, the president told him that “‘old timers’ such as the employee would not be laid off.” He admitted that such statements were general and had been made to a group of about thirty employees. To the Court, this kind of statement was too uncertain and vague to constitute a contractual offer. Further, it held that there was no consideration for such an open-ended offer.

The employee also alleged that he was let go because he repeatedly questioned the profit sharing plan and was told by his supervisor not to complain or report the matter to any governmental agency. The Court acknowledged that the common law of New Jersey limits the right of an employer to fire an employee at will when the discharge is contrary to a clear mandate of public policy. To qualify, the public policy mandate must be clearly identified. Here, the Court held thought that the public policy claim was vague. The factual contentions showed that he had only suspicion as to the possibility of a misuse of funds. Also, only four employees participated in the plan. Thus, his complaints were directed to the possibility of a private harm to a few rather than raising the kind of public harm depicted under prior case law. Finally, an action for wrongful discharge requires a causal connection between an employee’s action and his termination. Here, the employee only asserted a suspicion that he was terminated because of his concern about the pension plan. He failed to show any facts sufficient to establish a causal connection.

For the same reasons, the Court also upheld that the summary judgment granted in favor of the resort for the retaliatory termination claim for the same reasons. In addition, the employee pursued the retaliatory firing claim as a common law claim action instead of under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act. His complaints were admittedly made only within the company. Therefore, he failed to satisfy the legal standard to maintain his action. An employee can only sustain an action for retaliatory discharge if he reports the alleged violation to a governmental or outside activity. On the merits, his claim was not supported by facts. While conceding that the company required downsizing due to financial difficulties, the fired employee failed to present proof that his termination was wrongful. Conversely, the resort presented testimony by its Director of Human Resources who stated that an organizational chart, which named only positions and not individuals, was used to analyze the company’s structure and to mark positions to be eliminated and consolidated.

For those reasons, the Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s holding. An employer has the right to downsize its company, and an employee has the burden to show facts that his termination was discriminatory. Here, the employee failed to provide such evidence.


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