Ex-Associate's Suit Can Proceed Against Flaster Greenberg

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Pa Eastern District Court Judge John R. Padova

A federal judge has allowed a former Flaster Greenberg associate to continue with her claims for breach of implied contract and promissory estoppel/detrimental reliance against the firm, but dismissed her claim for negligent misrepresentation.

In Jones v. Flaster Greenberg, according to court documents, plaintiff Taffie Jones, a former associate in the intellectual property practice of Flaster Greenberg's Philadelphia office, claimed she was fired soon after she notified the firm's human resources department that the shareholder she was working under was creating a hostile work environment.

In a Dec. 30 opinion, U.S. District Judge John R. Padova of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied Flaster Greenberg's motion to dismiss Jones' claim that the firm breached its implied contract by firing her without just cause eight months after she moved from Chicago to join the firm.

Padova also denied Flaster Greenberg's motion to dismiss Jones' claim for promissory estoppel/detrimental reliance in which she claimed the firm broke its promise that she would be mentored by shareholder and IP department chair Lynda L. Calderone.

Padova did, however, grant the firm's motion to dismiss Jones' claim for negligent misrepresentation, finding that the firm's alleged promise to Jones that she would be mentored by Calderone and other senior attorneys was not a sufficient basis on which to establish such a claim.

Jones alleged in her complaint, which was originally filed in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in April of last year before the case was removed to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, that when she was offered a job with the firm in early 2012, she was promised that she would be mentored by Calderone.

But soon after she began her employment with Flaster Greenberg, the work environment became hostile, largely due to Calderone's treatment of her, Jones alleged in the complaint.

"Attorney Calderone would regularly berate, insult, use profanities and yell at plaintiff," Jones alleged in the complaint. "Additionally, on one occasion she even physically prevented plaintiff from leaving a conference room until she was finished berating her."

Jones alleged that Calderone refused to give her work, causing her to fail to meet her billable hour requirements, and "would regularly make false statements" about Jones' job performance, including that she missed deadlines and made too many errors in her written work, according to the complaint.

"Attorney Calderone would also often fail to provide plaintiff with the necessary information for her to properly conduct and complete her work," the complaint alleged.

Jones claimed in the complaint that she made several fruitless attempts to address these issues with Calderone and other shareholders, as well as the firm's human resources director.

On Nov. 2, 2012, according to the complaint, Jones received a performance review "which was largely positive and encouraging."

But on Nov. 9, 2012, the complaint said, Jones made a formal complaint to the firm's human resources department about the hostile work environment.

On Nov. 30, 2012, eight months after joining the firm, Jones was fired based on her "'performance,'" according to the complaint.

Jones alleged in the complaint that she has "incurred a loss of income and severe financial hardship" along with "an impairment of her professional reputation."

According to the complaint, Jones had been a solo attorney in Chicago when she was contacted by a recruiter on behalf of Flaster Greenberg in January 2012.

At the time, according to the complaint, Jones was not looking to join a new firm and had no intention of moving from Illinois.

Jones said in the complaint that she accepted the position largely based on the firm's promise that she would be mentored and trained by senior attorneys and shareholders.

According to the complaint, Jones "wanted to obtain training and experience as a patent attorney."

"Plaintiff moved 765 miles from her home in Illinois, closed her established law practice and left behind all of her family and friends in order to work as an associate attorney for defendant in Philadelphia," the complaint said, adding that because Jones does not have a license to practice in Pennsylvania, she "will be required to study, apply to and take the Pennsylvania bar examination in order to remain and practice in Pennsylvania."

But Flaster Greenberg argued in its motion to dismiss that Jones could not overcome the presumption that she was an at-will employee of the firm, in part because she could not show that she suffered sufficient hardship as a result of her employment with the firm.

Padova, however, said Jones' allegations that she moved from Chicago to Pennsylvania to join Flaster Greenberg established that she "suffered a substantial hardship in order to begin her employment with Flaster, thus creating an implied contract for a reasonable period of employment."

Padova also disagreed with Flaster Greenberg's argument that Jones' claim for promissory estoppel/detrimental reliance should be dismissed because the alleged promise that she would be mentored by Calderone and other senior attorneys was too vague.

"We conclude that the promise alleged in the complaint, which specifically identified Calderone as an individual who would train, direct and mentor Jones, is not 'too vague and indefinite to constitute a "promise" for purposes of promissory estoppel,'" Padova said, quoting language from the 2005 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decision in Ankerstjerne v. Schlumberger.

Padova did, however, agree with Flaster Greenberg's argument that the alleged promise of being mentored by Calderone and other senior attorneys was not a sufficient basis for a negligent misrepresentation claim.

Padova said that was "a promise regarding actions in the future," rather than a "'present, material fact,'" as required by the 2013 Eastern District case Summit Trust v. Paul Ellis Investment Associates.

In addition, according to Padova, the allegation that Flaster Greenberg did not fulfill its promise cannot raise an inference that the promise was false when it was made.

Calderone deferred comment to Flaster Greenberg's attorney.

Counsel for the firm, Thomas J. Barton of Drinker Biddle & Reath in Philadelphia, could not be reached for comment.

Jones' attorney, Edith Pearce of the Pearce Law Firm in Philadelphia, also could not be reached.

Zack Needles can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or zneedles@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI.

(Copies of the 15-page opinion in Jones v. Flaster Greenberg, PICS No. 13-3421, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •

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