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Surya v. Roberts

2007 WL 4302404 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2007) (Unpublished)

EMPLOYER-EMPLOYEE — Even though an employer may have the right to decide not to rehire an employee at the end of his or her contract, there can still be a factual issue as to whether the employer misrepresented to the employee that he or she would be retained or would become a part owner of the business.

A female board certified cardiac surgeon wished to practice at the only hospital in her home county that permitted cardiac surgeries. One professional corporation had the exclusive contract for cardiac surgical services at the hospital. Therefore, she sought employment or association with that surgical group. The group offered her a year-long fellowship. The surgeon asserted that the practice group promised that she would become an attending cardiac surgeon under the group’s umbrella after completion of the fellowship, and so she agreed to terms. The surgeon stated that her superior praised the quality of her work and further encouraged her during the fellowship, leaving her to reasonably believe she would be offered the position that she was promised. During the course of the fellowship, she sought a written contract. She received a memorandum about mid-year in the term. It stated that the group’s two principals would create an agreement one month before the end of fellowship that would allow her to become a junior attending surgeon. In that capacity, she would be utilized on a per-diem basis. At the end of the fellowship’s term, the principals told the surgeon that they would not be offering a contract.

The surgeon sued the surgical group and its principals, alleging racial and gender discrimination, breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, wrongful discharge, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and fraud. The lower court granted summary judgment to the surgical group and its principals, dismissing the surgeon’s complaint. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed in part, and reversed in part.

The Appellate Division affirmed the dismissal of the discrimination claims, finding the record barren of any indication of discriminatory actions. The surgical group asserted that its decision not to hire the surgeon was based upon her unsatisfactory performance with patients and nursing staff, and an inability to follow a superior’s directions as to how to perform a procedure. The Court noted that the surgeon failed to set forth any facts to prove that these asserted reasons for dismissal were merely a pretext for discrimination. On the other hand, it reversed the dismissal of the breach of contract claim and breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing claim, based on the surgeon’s testimony that she was verbally promised a position after the termination of the fellowship The Court also reversed the dismissal of the fraud claim, finding that a factual issue could arise as to whether the surgical group misrepresented to the surgeon that she would be an attending physician, knowing that she would rely upon that misrepresentation to her detriment, thus causing her damage. Lastly, it approved the dismissal of the wrongful discharge claim, finding no factual issue since the surgeon was not discharged but rather had reached the end of her fellowship and had not been offered a position as an attending physician. It also approved the dismissal of the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim because of a lack of evidence.

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