On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-1354-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges R.B. Coleman and Graves.
Plaintiff Paula Cannella (Cannella) appeals from an order dated May 21, 2008, granting summary judgment to her former employer, defendant Conair Corporation (Conair). In her complaint, Cannella asserted breach of contract and wrongful discharge claims against Conair. All other claims in the ten-count complaint against former co-workers were dismissed prior to summary judgment and are not the subject of this appeal. We are satisfied from our study of the record that summary judgment was properly granted, and we affirm substantially for the reasons stated by the trial court in its written opinion on May 21, 2008.
On November 5, 1997, when Cannella applied for employment at Conair, she signed an "Applicant's Statement" in which she acknowledged that if she was hired she would be an at-will employee subject to Conair's rules and regulations. That statement included the following:
I hereby acknowledge that any employment relationship with this Company is of an "at will" nature, which means that the Employee may resign at any time and the Employer may discharge Employee at any time with or without cause. It is further acknowledged that this "at will" employment relationship may not be changed by any written document or by conduct unless such change is specifically acknowledged in writing by an authorized executive of the Company.
In the event of employment, I understand that false or misleading information given in my application or interview(s) may result in discharge. I understand, also, that I am required to abide by all rules and regulations of the employer.
In addition, Cannella testified at her deposition that Conair did not promise her employment for any specific time period, and that she did not recall Conair ever providing her with a contract of employment.
In December 1997, Conair hired Cannella as a LAN (Local Area Network) administrator in its corporate offices in East Windsor, New Jersey. She continued to work in that position until Conair discharged her on May 24, 2000. On her application for employment at Conair, Cannella stated she resigned from her prior employment because of downsizing at the company. However, at her deposition she testified she left her previous job at least partially in response to her supervisor's intention to suspend her for ten days due to excessive absenteeism. She further testified she received and read the Conair employee handbook, stating that fighting, gross insubordination, and falsifying information on an employment application were "Grounds for Immediate Discharge."
The employee handbook also contained an explanation of Conair's progressive disciplinary process, which applied to "all other infractions" not listed as grounds for immediate discharge. In August 1999, Conair supplemented the handbook through an interoffice memorandum stating that "it is Company policy that the misuse of email will be grounds for immediate dismissal; therefore, use it as intended, as a communication device within the Conair environment." During her deposition, Cannella acknowledged she received this supplement and understood that the personal use of Conair's e-mail system was prohibited.
In addition, Cannella testified that her supervisor warned her in April 2000 to cease personal contact with her former partner, defendant and co-worker Michelle Roche, and that if she disobeyed she could be terminated. Nevertheless, Cannella acknowledged sending an e-mail to Roche on May 19, 2000, referring to her as "one arrogant, cold, cruel bitch," and she admitted that on May 24, 2000, she was told: "Because of this e-mail, you're fired."
The trial court dismissed Cannella's breach of contract and wrongful termination claims on the grounds that she was an at-will employee who could be fired for any or no reason, and the company handbook did not create a contract of indefinite employment. Alternatively, the court found that even if the handbook did create a contract, Conair discharged Cannella lawfully for violating its policy against sending personal and harassing e-mails to Roche, and insubordination for continuing to e-mail Roche after being told not to have any further contact with her.
On appeal, Cannella argues the trial court erred by finding that: (1) no genuine issue of material fact existed; (2) Conair did not violate a "clear mandate of public policy" when it discharged her; and (3) Cannella misrepresented material facts on her employment application. She contends her wrongful discharge claim demonstrated that Conair violated a clear mandate of public policy when it terminated her for reporting to management that she had been harassed. Relying upon Pierce v. Ortho Pharm. Corp., 84 N.J. 58 (1980), she further argues that Conair's alleged failure to respond to her ...