On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County.
Michels, Muir, Jr., and Keefe. The opinion of the court was delivered by Michels, P.J.A.D.
Defendant The Claridge Hotel & Casino, Ltd., now known as The Claridge at Park Place, Inc., d/b/a Del Webb's Claridge Casino Hotel (hereinafter referred to as "Claridge") appeals from a judgment of the Law Division entered on a jury verdict that awarded plaintiff Martha Preston damages in the sum of $67,000, together with interest, and from an order denying its motion for a new trial or, alternatively, a remittitur of damages, in this action for wrongful termination of employment.
In November 1980, plaintiff was hired by Claridge as a casino floor person and was responsible for supervising the blackjack and baccarat games. Prior to the opening of the casino in June 1981, Claridge held a general orientation meeting at which time a Claridge representative distributed Employee Handbooks to all employees. The representative explained what was expected of the employees and what, in turn, the employees could expect in terms of employment policies. All employees were required to read the handbook and sign a form which indicated that they understood that they could be terminated for violating the terms contained in the handbook. Approximately one year later, Claridge issued an otherwise identical "revised" handbook which contained a disclaimer advising employees that the handbook was not to be construed as a contract. Although no explanation was provided as to the significance of this disclaimer, all employees were required to read the revised handbook and sign the detachable acknowledgment form.
In August 1984, plaintiff was fired by Claridge after becoming involved in a dispute with a co-worker in the casino. Thereafter, plaintiff instituted this action for wrongful discharge and was awarded damages in the sum of $67,000. The
jury found that (1) Claridge was contractually prohibited from discharging plaintiff without just cause by virtue of the representations concerning maximum job security contained in the first handbook; (2) these obligations had not been extinguished by the disclaimer contained in the second or "revised" handbook; (3) plaintiff had not been fired for just cause and (4) plaintiff was entitled to $42,000 in current lost wages and $25,000 in future lost wages. The trial court awarded plaintiff pre-judgment interest on the $42,000 jury award. Claridge's motion for a new trial or, alternatively, a remittitur of the damages award, was denied. This appeal followed.
Claridge first contends that the decision reached in Woolley v. Hoffman-LaRoche, Inc., 99 N.J. 284 (1985), mod. 101 N.J. 10 (1985), should not be applied retroactively. We disagree. In Woolley, the Supreme Court held that a distributed company policy manual that is intended to cover the general work force may be construed as an implied contractual offer to abide by the terms contained therein. The operative determination under Woolley is whether the distributed manual or handbook could have led employees to reasonably believe that the company's "policies," particularly with respect to job security, would be honored as terms and conditions of employment, therefore, obviating the need for unionization. If plaintiff reasonably could have construed the employment handbook issued to her in 1980 as a contract of employment, then the purposes of the law set forth in Woolley would be furthered by a retroactive application of that decision. See Grigoletti v. Ortho Pharmaceutical, 226 N.J. Super. 518, 525-526 (App.Div.1988), certif. granted, 113 N.J. 640 (1988); Giudice v. Drew Chemical Corp., 210 N.J. Super. 32, 35 (App.Div.1986), certif. granted in part and remanded, 104 N.J. 465 (1986); Cole v. Carteret Sav. Bank, 224 N.J. Super. 446, 454 (Law Div.1988). Hence, we hold that the principles of law enunciated in Woolley are applicable here.
Claridge next contends that even if Woolley is applicable, the clear and prominent disclaimer in the second handbook extinguished any contractual job security obligations that may have existed. Although Woolley permits employers to utilize disclaimers to achieve such a result, the language in the disclaimer must indicate, in straightforward terms, that the employee is subject to discharge at will. Here, the disclaimer contained in the revised handbook did not convey that message.
As in Woolley, it is significant that the handbook was intended to cover all Claridge employees and was distributed at the orientation meeting to provide the employees with an idea of what they could reasonably expect from Claridge and what, in turn, was expected from them. Since all Claridge employees were required to read the handbook and sign a form which indicated that they understood that a violation of the terms contained therein could result in termination, it was reasonable for those employees to expect that compliance with those same terms would prevent their discharge without just cause. Thus, there was sufficient credible evidence in the record for the jury to have found that the first employee handbook created an implied contract of employment under which neither plaintiff nor any other permanent employee could be discharged without just cause.
Claridge attempts to distinguish the terms contained in its first handbook from those contained in the handbook issued by Hoffman-LaRoche in Woolley. Claridge contends that the termination procedures contained in the Woolley manual are more detailed and go to a greater length to spell out "just cause" than the termination procedures contained in the Claridge Employee Handbook and that the Claridge procedures apply only when an employee chooses to terminate his employment. Claridge, however, fails to account for the fact that its handbook provides a step-by-step ...