On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Passaic County.
Approved for Publication April 15, 1997.
Before Judges Landau, Wallace and Kimmelman. The opinion of the court was delivered by Kimmelman, J.A.D.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kimmelman
The opinion of the court was delivered by
Defendant American Cyanamid Company appeals a wrongful discharge verdict rendered against it in favor of plaintiff for $315,000. Plaintiff Richard Geldreich cross-appeals from the dismissal by the trial court of his age discrimination claim brought against defendant pursuant to the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 to -42.
Plaintiff began a thirty-one year professional career with defendant in 1960, at age 23, starting as an accounts payable trainee at its Formica subsidiary company in Ohio. Initially, he earned $375 per month. Over the years and after several relocations and many promotions, plaintiff was transferred to defendant's headquarters in Wayne, New Jersey as a manager of plant accounting and data processing for the Fibers Division. In 1983, plaintiff was promoted to Manager of Accounting Systems for the Chemical Group Controllers Department in which position he remained until February 13, 1991, when plaintiff was summarily informed that he was being terminated by reason of a reduction in force. At that point in time, plaintiff was fifty-four years of age, was earning $85,000 per year, and had worked for defendant and its subsidiaries for a total of thirty-one years.
Plaintiff then brought this suit in two counts, first, alleging age discrimination in violation of the LAD provisions and, second, alleging wrongful termination in violation of defendant's written personnel policy for salaried non-union employees since defendant did not seek to find and offer to plaintiff alternative employment within the company prior to his termination.
It appears that throughout his career with defendant, plaintiff received consistently favorable performance reviews which, over the years, contained such phrases as "excellent performance," "overall performance and results are very good," "excellent 'feel' for financial data," "meets all major requirements," "excels in several major areas," and "has performed with enthusiasm and accuracy." At trial, plaintiff's supervisor, Robert Ritter, testifying for the defense, asserted that plaintiff was "only a fair accountant" and that other employees had told him that plaintiff was "difficult to work with at times."
On January 1, 1967, plaintiff entered into an Employment Agreement with a subsidiary of defendant. The agreement provided in part:
The EMPLOYEE'S employment hereunder shall . . . continue until the earlier of the EMPLOYEE'S death or his retirement date under any applicable retirement plan then in effect, subject to the right of either the EMPLOYEE or the COMPANY to terminate the employment by written notice . . . .
This Agreement constitutes the entire understanding between the parties hereto . . . and shall not be changed or modified except by a written instrument signed by both parties.
This Employment Agreement was subsequently assigned to defendant and was in effect when plaintiff was terminated.
Defendant claims that this agreement, which governs the relationship between the parties, is for an indefinite term and was therefore an at-will employment terminable with or without cause for any reason whatsoever. See Woolley v. Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc. 99 N.J. 284, 290-91, 491 A.2d 1257 (1985). On the other hand, plaintiff claims that defendant had a long-standing policy assuring that defendant would make special efforts to preserve the careers of long-service employees, even during a down-sizing for economic reasons, and asserts that defendant failed to honor its written promise to give deference to plaintiff's seniority during any reduction in force. Plaintiff relies on defendant's Personnel Policy Memorandum No. 8 (PPM-8), effective January 1, 1981, which in part provides:
1.1 To ensure equitable and consistent treatment of employees in all cases of termination of employment, and to ensure performance of the obligations and requirements of the Employment Agreement on the part of both the employee and the Company.
4.2 Involuntary Termination
b. Reduction in Force for Economic Reasons
(i) When it is necessary to terminate an employee because of a reduction in force or because the job is no longer needed, efforts will be made (particularly in the case of any long service ...