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.