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Franco v. AT&T Corp.

August 14, 2007

PATRICIA DE FRANCO, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
AT&T CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Somerset County, Docket No. L-413-04.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted August 7, 2007

Before Judges Sabatino and Baxter.

Plaintiff Patricia De Franco appeals from an October 6, 2006 order granting summary judgment to defendant AT&T Corporation. Plaintiff was a district manager in AT&T's Business Services organization. In April 2001, she met with her supervisor and admitted that she had used her corporate credit card to improperly purchase alcohol for personal use, and conceded that this infraction subjected her to termination. Plaintiff offered to submit her resignation, but her supervisor did not accept the resignation, instead directing plaintiff to enter an alcohol rehabilitation program and obtain help for her problem. Plaintiff did so, but when she returned to work a year later, she was immediately terminated.

On appeal, plaintiff argues that she was repeatedly told by defendant's Employee Assistance Program (EAP) staff that her job was secure and that she would be able to return to work. She argues that the trial court committed reversible error of law when it rejected her fraud and equitable estoppel claims. We disagree and affirm.

I.

Plaintiff's employment with AT&T began in 1987. After four promotions, she assumed the position of district manager in the Business Services organization where she reported to Division Manager Tracey Thorsen. In April 2001, plaintiff informed Thorsen that she had used her corporate American Express credit card to purchase alcohol for personal use and that she had contacted a representative of defendant's Employee Assistance Program (EAP) seeking help for her alcoholism problem. During that April 2001 conversation, plaintiff admitted to Thorsen that she was aware that purchasing alcohol with her corporate credit card was a terminable offense, and she offered to submit her resignation.

At the time of plaintiff's conversation with Thorsen, the AT&T Personnel Guide (Guide), which plaintiff concedes was applicable to her, contained a section entitled "Terminating Employment." The Guide states in pertinent part that "[a]t AT&T, there is no fixed duration to the employment relationship. Employees can terminate their employment whenever they wish and for whatever reason they might have, just as AT&T may terminate the employment of any employee at any time for any reason. This is known as 'employment-at-will.'"

The Guide also contained a provision specifying that its provisions cannot be modified by oral statements of supervisors or managers. In particular, in a section entitled "What Employees Need To Know About The AT&T Personnel Guide and Employment At AT&T," the Guide expressly states that its provisions cannot be modified by oral statements and warns employees that any oral statements inconsistent with the provisions of the Guide are not binding on the company. The Guide provided:

[The Guide] supersedes all past handbooks, manuals, policies, procedures, understandings, and standards, whether written or oral. . . . Any written or oral statement by any AT&T manager that conflicts with anything in the Guide is not binding on AT&T. If employees think that they've been told something that's inconsistent with the Guide, they should realize that information in the Guide can't be changed orally, and they should notify their BU HR representative, who in turn will inform the Human Resources Policy Group. [(emphasis added).]

Another document that was applicable at the time of plaintiff's conversation with Thorsen in April 2001 was the AT&T Code of Conduct (Code). The Code expressly provides that failure to comply with its provisions entitles AT&T to terminate an employee, even if the infraction is the employee's first violation of company rules.

The Code also contains standards of conduct that directly apply to plaintiff's misuse of the corporate credit card. In particular, the Code specifies:

Company Funds and Property - All AT&T employees are responsible for safeguarding and making proper and efficient use of company funds and property by following procedures to prevent their loss, theft, or unauthorized use. Company funds and property include company time; cash, ...


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