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Crepy v. Reckitt Benckiser, LLC

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, Essex

February 7, 2017

VINCENT CREPY, Plaintiff,
v.
RECKITT BENCKISER, LLC, RECKITT GROUP PLC, RECKITT BENCKISER CORPORATE SERVICES, LTD., AND DOES 1-25, Defendants.

          Decided: February 19, 2016

          Paul Bishop and David Klein for plaintiff (Brach Eichler, LLC, and Kennedy Berg LLP, attorneys).

          Vincent N. Avallone for defendants RB Group PLC, RB Corporate Services, Ltd., and RB, LLC (K&L Gates LLP, attorneys).

          OPINION

          MITTERHOFF, J.S.C.

         STATEMENT OF FACTS

         This matter comes before the court by way of defendant's renewed motion to transfer venue from Essex County to Morris County. Plaintiff's claims arise out of the alleged wrongful termination of his employment as Senior Vice President of Supply, Latin America, North, South and Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand by defendant Reckitt Benckiser LLC ("RB LLC") in February, 2012. This case arises out of a dispute over plaintiff's employment at Reckitt Benckiser ("RB"). In 2007, plaintiff began employment in Parsippany, New Jersey, for defendant RB LLC. The terms of that employment agreement stated that RB LLC could not terminate plaintiff's employment without providing six months' notice. However, the employment contract also allowed RB LLC to immediately terminate plaintiff if he engaged in "gross misconduct, " or was "guilty of any fraud, dishonesty, or such other conduct."

         In November 2011, Amadeo Fasano ("Fasano"), Executive Vice President of RBCS, RB LLC's parent corporation and plaintiff's boss, informed plaintiff during a videoconference that his position at RB LLC was being eliminated. Simon Nash ("Nash"), Senior Vice President of Reckitt Benckiser Corporate Services (RBCS), RB LLC's parent company, allegedly acting on behalf of RB Group and RB LLC, offered plaintiff a new position ("Senior Vice President LAPAC") requiring him to move to Singapore. After consulting with his family and some further negotiations, plaintiff signed the final offer (letter of intent) on December 9, 2011. The letter of intent contained a section identical to the RB LLC employment agreement, allowing plaintiff's position to be terminated without compensation or notice for misconduct.

          Prior to moving to Singapore, plaintiff inquired about the status of his United States permanent residency card (green card) with a New York City immigration lawyer, Ted Chiappari ("Chiappari"), who represented both plaintiff and defendant in connection with the proposed transfer. Plaintiff alleges that Chiappari informed him that as long as plaintiff's wife maintained her green card, plaintiff's children would be able to work and attend college in the United States. Chiappari testified that he laid out three options for plaintiff and his family: everyone in the family would keep their green cards, everyone would surrender them, or plaintiff individually would surrender his and the rest of his family would retain theirs. Chiappari testified that plaintiff understood the options and risks involved with each option and would think it over. On January 31, 2012, plaintiff notified senior RB management of his intention to surrender his green card.

         In February of 2012, Nash summoned plaintiff to London for a meeting. Plaintiff alleges that Nash and Fasano, acting on the orders of Rakesh Kapoor ("Kapoor"), Chief Executive Officer of RB Group, told plaintiff that he had been dishonest in failing to disclose his intention to surrender his green card in order to receive additional compensation during negotiations for the Singapore position and avoid tax liability. When asked whether he thought plaintiff had been dishonest when intending to surrender his green card, Nash testified, "I concluded that it was very likely [plaintiff] had been dishonest and in my thinking he had been dishonest . . . the key fact is he did not tell me he intended to surrender his green card and yet he understood clearly that the offer had been made for Singapore was inflated by a substantial number of dollars because we had taken on the assumption he would be taxed as a U.S. resident."

         Plaintiff alleges Chiappari disclosed the advice to RB, which RB then used to justify plaintiff's termination. In that regard, Chiappari admitted to talking with Nash and Fasano on February 6, 2012, about plaintiff's tax status. In a letter signed by Nash, dated February 7, 2012, RB terminated plaintiff's position. Plaintiff alleges that his termination under the letter of intent was unjustified as his actions did not rise to the level of "misconduct" and that he was responsible under Section 15.02 of the letter of intent for his own tax arrangements. Alternatively, plaintiff alleges defendant justified this termination under the employment agreement with RB LLC, even though it had expired and plaintiff was formally working for RB Singapore.

         In sum, plaintiff asserts that defendant never intended to continue employing him after eliminating his position at RB LLC and defendant engaged in a "bait-and-switch" designed to terminate his employment without notice and without paying him as required by the agreement. Plaintiff argues that the Singapore position was created as a pretext to justify firing him from RB LLC without six months' notice or compensation, and thus save costs as part of a corporate restructuring.

         Plaintiff commenced the instant action against RB LLC, RBCS and Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC (RB Group) (collectively referred to as RB LLC or defendant) for wrongful termination on January 30, 2015, in Essex County. His complaint alleges that defendant's stated basis for terminating his employment was a pretext to avoid paying him a redundancy package. Plaintiff is seeking damages under theories of fraud, breach of contract, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, promissory estoppel, and tortious interference.

         The facts that are pertinent to this change of venue motion are as follows. Plaintiff is a French citizen who holds a United States green card and is currently domiciled in Irvine, California. During the course of his employment at RB LLC and its affiliates, plaintiff held positions in Belgium, England, Spain, and Parsippany, New Jersey. RB LLC is a Delaware Limited Liability Company registered in Mercer County, New Jersey with its principal place of business in Morris County, New Jersey. RB LLC has no registered locations in Essex County.

         It is uncontested that all events leading up to plaintiff's termination occurred outside of Essex County. Specifically:

1.Plaintiff was employed at RB LLC's Morris County Office.
2.Plaintiff and RB LLC entered into a letter of intent regarding his employment with the Singapore Affiliate while he was working in Morris County.
3.The decision to terminate plaintiff's employment was allegedly made in Cape Town, South Africa.
4.Employees of RB LLC accused plaintiff of fraudulent misrepresentation and terminated his employment during a meeting in England.

         The cause of action did not arise in Essex County, the plaintiff does not reside in Essex County, and defendant has no registered locations in Essex County. Rather, plaintiff's basis for laying venue in Essex County is Rule 4:3-2(B), in that RB LLC "actually does business" in Essex County.

         During oral argument on defendant's motion to change venue, the court determined, as an initial matter, that venue is proper for limited liability companies where the company actually does business. Accordingly, the issue during oral argument focused on the extent of business and contact defendant's sales representatives had with Essex County, as it appeared undisputed that was the only business contact with the county that might satisfy the "doing business" requirement. Because the parties had not conducted discovery relating to the issue, or briefed it in their underlying motion papers, the court denied the application without prejudice to afford the parties the opportunity to perform discovery and renew the change of venue motion ...


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