On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County, Docket No. L-3452-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Winkelstein, Fuentes and Chambers.
Plaintiff Annette C. Nandy brought this wrongful termination case against her former employer, defendant Hampton Behavioral Health Center, an affiliate of Universal Health Services, Inc.*fn1 Plaintiff, who was working as a nursing supervisor for defendant, was terminated from that position on September 27, 2006, due to a confrontation with another employee. She contended that this termination was in violation of defendant's verbal policy of progressive discipline. Defendant argues that it provided plaintiff with written notice of her at-will status and that plaintiff acknowledged in writing that she could be fired with or without cause and without defendant exhausting any form of progressive discipline.
The trial court granted defendant summary judgment. Plaintiff appeals that decision. We affirm, concluding that plaintiff was an at-will employee, who could be terminated with or without cause, and that defendant had no legal obligation to afford her progressive discipline.
When reviewing the granting of a motion for summary judgment we apply the same standard used by the trial court. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Boylan, 307 N.J. Super. 162, 167 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 608 (1998). Summary judgment is granted if no genuine issue of material fact is present so that the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. R. 4:46-2(c). We do not defer to the trial court's interpretation of the law, or its determination of the legal consequences that flow from undisputed facts. Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995). In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact is present, we look at the competent evidence "in the light most favorable to the non-moving party" to determine whether the evidence is "sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party." Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995). If not, the motion is granted. Ibid. Looking at the evidence presented on the motion through this prism, we note the following facts.
In March 1996, plaintiff, a registered nurse, was hired as a nursing supervisor by defendant. During her employment, problems developed concerning plaintiff's interaction with other staff. Although she was referred to the Employee Assistance Program, she was not subjected to any disciplinary action before her termination. On September 24, 2006, a confrontation developed between plaintiff and a subordinate that was witnessed by other staff. After conducting an investigation, defendant terminated plaintiff on September 27, 2006, due to that incident for "intimidating actions and unwelcomed harassment towards an employee."
Plaintiff filed this wrongful termination case disputing the allegation of misconduct and arguing that defendant violated its policy of progressive discipline. While defendant maintained that it had a sufficient factual basis to terminate plaintiff, it contended that pursuant to statements in employment applications completed by plaintiff and defendant's employee manual and policy and procedure manual, plaintiff was an at-will employee who could be fired with or without cause.
In numerous documents, defendant advised plaintiff that her employment was at will. Defendant's application for employment form, dated 1996 and signed by plaintiff, expressly stated that "employment is for no definite period of time and may, regardless of the date of payment of my wages and salary, be terminated at any time without any previous notice or stated reason, and I accept these conditions." Above plaintiff's signature, the form stated: "I have read and understand the above and have had the opportunity to ask questions which, if asked, were satisfactorily answered."
Once hired in 1996, plaintiff signed an acknowledgment that the Human Resources Policy and Procedure Manual was available for her review and that its provisions did "not constitute a contract of employment or impose contractual obligations" upon defendant. Plaintiff acknowledged that the manual was available for her review and that she and her supervisor reviewed the disciplinary policy on at least one occasion.
Defendant's policy of progressive discipline, as revised in 2004 and set forth in the Policy and ...