In Jennifer Trehar v. Brightway Center, Inc., the Seventh District Court of Appeals held that a promissory estoppel claim can lie even without an explicit promise—silence where an ordinary person would make a statement or take action.
Jennifer Trehar was employed at Brightway Center, a Christian non-profit, since 2010. In June 2012, she claimed she informed Brightway on two different occasions that she planned to move in with her boyfriend. She claimed that, on the first occasion, she was congratulated by her boss on the move. On the second occasion, she was granted permission to miss a work function in order to make arrangements for her boyfriend to move.
In July 2012, Trehar again informed Brightway of her move. However, this time Brightway responded by sending Trehar a letter suspending her for the month of July and providing her one month to determine if she wished to get married, stop living with her boyfriend, or be terminated. The letter cited the organization’s religious ideals as the basis for the decision. Trehar did not change her living situation and was terminated.
Trehar sued, alleging promissory estoppel, claiming that Brightway knew about her living arrangement in advance of her formally moving; approved of it on two different occasions; and assured her that she would remain employed. She claimed that she relied on those promises of continued employment and moved. Brightway claimed in response that it was aware Trehar was moving and that her boyfriend was also moving, but was unaware she would be living with her boyfriend and his children until just prior to sending the suspension letter.
While Ohio is an at-will employment state, promissory estoppel is an exception to that doctrine. The elements necessary for a promissory estoppel claim are “(1) a clear and unambiguous promise, (2) reasonable and foreseeable reliance by the party to whom the promise is made, and (3) injury by the reliance by the party claiming estoppel.”
In this case, Brightway filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis that there was no specific and explicit promise of continued employment. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case.
Trehar appealed the trial court’s decision to the Seventh District Court of Appeals. Trehar argued on appeal that an explicit promise of continued employment was not required and that silence could be interpreted as a promise capable of reliance.
The Court found that the promises allegedly made were different from “praise with respect to job performance, discussion of future career development, or promises of future opportunities,” which are insufficient to support a claim of promissory estoppel. In Trehar’s case, by remaining silent while Trehar discussed her move plans, Brightway and its CEO “silently assented to Trehar moving in with her boyfriend and [Brightway’s CEO’s] silence can be construed as a promise that no adverse employment action would come as a result of her move.” The Court noted that the Supreme Court has stated that promissory estoppel claims can result from silence where there is an obligation to speak. According the Court remanded Trehar’s case to the trial court and instructed that her promissory estoppel claim be presented to a jury.
The Court reviewed a handbook provision that disclaimed any contractual arrangement and reaffirmed at-will employment but held that promissory estoppel could still serve as an exception to at-will employment where the specific promise applied. This means that Brightway could fire Trehar for any reason except her moving in with her boyfriend.
Silence as an employee discusses taking a particular action (where one would normally be expected to speak) could lead to promissory estoppel liability after the employee takes action in reliance. Employers should keep this in mind as promissory estoppel claims can exist even in the absence of actual intent. It is what the employer should reasonably expect the employee to believe that is critical—not actual employer intent. Further, no at-will disclaimer can disclaim a promissory estoppel claim.