United States District Court, D. Connecticut
January 22, 2004.
BRUCE HOLT, Plaintiff; HOME DEPOT, U.S.A., INC. and MELANIE GRAY, Defendants
The opinion of the court was delivered by: ROBERT CHATIGNY, District Judge
RULING AND ORDER
This case is before the court after a trial at which the jury was asked
to decide, in essence, whether plaintiff's employment with defendant Home
Depot, U.S.A., Inc. was terminated because he undertook to use the
company's open-door procedure to complain to higher-ups about his
immediate supervisor, defendant Melanie Gray, in reasonable reliance on
the company's promise that employees could use the procedure without fear
of retaliation. The jury found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded him
$467,000 in compensatory damages. Defendants have moved for judgment as a
matter of law, a new trial, or an order of remittitur. The stringent
standards that apply to requests for such relief are not satisfied.
Accordingly, the motion is denied in its entirety.
Plaintiff worked as a manager for Home Depot from January 1995 to July
1999. Throughout those years, Home Depot assured employees
through statements in the employee handbook and other means of
communication that if they took advantage of the company's open-door
procedure to complain to management about their supervisors, they would
not be penalized. In March 1999, Home Depot moved plaintiff and his
family to Connecticut so he could manage a new distribution center in
Bloomfield. Soon after he started there, he began to have difficulties
and disagreements with his immediate supervisor, Ms. Gray. In June, he
contacted a senior manager, Brian Bender, regarding his problems with
her. On July 3, he called Home Depot's Impact Line to ask that forms be
sent to him so he could make a formal complaint. On July 9, two senior
Home Depot managers, Drex Crowell and Herb Miller, went to the Bloomfield
center accompanied by Gray and terminated the plaintiff's employment.
A. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law
The issue presented by defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of
law is whether a reasonable person, viewing the evidence presented at
trial fully and most favorably to the plaintiff, could find in his favor
on a claim of promissory estoppel.
The jury was correctly charged that plaintiff could not prevail on this
claim unless he proved the following: (1) Home Depot made a clear,
definite promise that it would not retaliate against employees for using
its internal complaint procedure; (2) Home Depot reasonably
should have expected the plaintiff to rely on the promise; (3) he
did reasonably rely on it; (4) his employment with Home Depot was
terminated as a result; and (5) enforcement of the promise is necessary
to prevent injustice.
Home Depot argues that it made no definite promise on which plaintiff
could reasonably rely. While conceding that its employee handbook
contained an explicit promise that no employee would be penalized for
using the open-door procedure, it contends that plaintiff could not
reasonably rely on the promise because of disclaimers of contractual
intent contained in the handbook and his employment application. I
disagree. Having presided at the trial, I think the jury could reasonably
find that Home Depot's promise not to retaliate against employees for
using the open-door procedure was so clear, emphatic, highly touted, and
widely proclaimed that plaintiff could reasonably believe it was
inviolable and thus not covered by general disclaimers in the handbook
and application. Defendants rely on cases in which similar disclaimers
precluded claims of promissory estoppel, but those cases are factually
distinguishable, as plaintiff correctly points out.*fn1
Defendants next argue that the jury could not reasonably find that
plaintiff proved reliance because there is no evidence he used the
open-door procedure to complain about Gray. Here again, I disagree. The
jury was presented with substantial evidence on this essential element of
the claim, including testimony by the plaintiff, Gray, and Miller, and an
email from the plaintiff to Crowell. This evidence, viewed most favorably
to the plaintiff, is sufficient to support the jury's finding that he
undertook to complain about Gray in reliance on the no-retaliation
Defendants next argue that the jury could not reasonably find that
plaintiff's employment was terminated because of any complaint he made
about Gray. They argue that the persons who terminated his employment did
not know about his attempts to complain about her, and that he was
terminated for incompetence, insubordination and violating an ethics
policy. They support both arguments primarily with the testimony of the
three people involved in the termination decision. The jury was entitled
to reject their testimony as pretextual, particularly in light of the
close temporal proximity between plaintiff's initial steps to complain to
higher-ups about Gray and the termination of his employment, as well as
the sequence of events immediately preceding the termination, which fit
plaintiff's theory that he was the victim of a preemptive strike
instigated by Gray.
B. Motion for New Trial
New trials are granted only when the jury reaches a "seriously
erroneous result" or the verdict is a "miscarriage of justice."
Mallis v. Bankers Trust Co., 717 F.2d 683, 691 (2d Cir. 1983).
The jury's verdict may be fairly debatable, as many verdicts are, but by
no means is it clearly erroneous or unjust.
Defendants first argue that the "overwhelming weight of the evidence"
shows that the elements of promissory estoppel are not present and
plaintiff was terminated for incompetence and ethical violations. As just
discussed, however, reasonable people viewing the evidence in a light
most favorable to the plaintiff could find that he undertook to use the
open-door procedure to complain about Gray in reasonable reliance on the
no-retaliation guarantee and was terminated as a result.
Defendants next argue that the verdict must be set aside because,
although the jury found for the plaintiff on his promissory estoppel
claim, it rejected his claim for breach of an implied contract. A new
trial may be ordered when a verdict is fatally flawed by inconsistency,
but a verdict may not be set aside if an asserted inconsistency can be
logically explained. Turley v. Police Dep't, 167 F.3d 757, 760
(2d Cir. 1999).
The jury's decisions in this case need not be viewed as inconsistent. A
claim of promissory estoppel does not have the same elements as a claim
of breach of an implied contract; in particular, it requires no finding
of consideration for the promise. Pavliscak v. Bridgeport
Hosp., 48 Conn. App. 580, 592 n.5 (1998). The jury could have found
that Home Depot made a clear and definite promise not to retaliate
against the plaintiff, for which he supplied no consideration.
C. Motion for Remittitur
Defendants also move under Rule 59 for remittitur or a new trial on the
issue of damages only. They challenge the jury's award of back pay, its
rejection of their argument on mitigation of damages, and its choice of a
means for valuing plaintiff's lost stock options. Each of these decisions
required findings of fact. The jury's findings in favor of the plaintiff
may make their award seem generous in the eyes of Home Depot, but the
award is not excessive as a matter of law, and must therefore be
Accordingly, defendants' motion for judgment as a matter of law, a new
trial, or remittitur [Doc. #99] is hereby denied.