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Harris v. Brewer

Court of Appeals of Indiana

December 31, 2015

Daniel Harris, Appellant-Plaintiff,
v.
Donald Brewer, Donald Crockett, and Thomas Lamb, Orange County Commissioners as governing body of the Orange County Highway Department, Appellees-Defendants

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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          Appeal from the Orange Circuit Court. Trial Court Cause No. 59C01-1401-CT-4. The Honorable John T. Evans, Special Judge.

         ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: Daniel L. Brown, Salem, Indiana.

         ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: Douglas A. Hoffman, Jeremy M. Dilts, Carson Boxberger, Bloomington, Indiana.

         Pyle, Judge. Crone, J., and Brown, J., concur.

          OPINION

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          Pyle, Judge.

         Statement of the Case

         [¶1] Appellant/Plaintiff, Daniel Harris (Harris), appeals the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Donald Brewer, Donald Crockett, and Thomas Lamb, Orange County Commissioners, as governing body of the Orange County Highway Department (" Highway Department" ) (collectively, " Orange County" ), on Harris's claims of wrongful termination and defamation. Harris was terminated from his employment with the Highway Department as a result of his alleged consumption of alcohol prior to operating a Highway Department vehicle. He subsequently filed wrongful termination and defamation claims, amongst others, against Orange County. Orange County filed a motion for summary judgment on the claims, and the trial court granted the motion.

         [¶2] On appeal, Harris argues that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment on both claims. With respect to his wrongful termination claim, he asserts that the trial court should have ruled that he was not an at-will employee because it should have interpreted the Orange County Highway Department's Handbook of Personnel Policy (" the Handbook" ) as a valid unilateral employment contract stipulating that Harris's employment could only be terminated for just cause. Alternatively, Harris argues that even if the Handbook did not constitute a valid employment contract, an exception to Indiana's presumption of employment-at-will applied to him. With respect to his defamation claim, Harris asserts that the trial court

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erred in granting summary judgment because there were still genuine issues of material fact remaining for the factfinder to resolve.

         [¶3] On cross-appeal, Orange County argues that the trial court erred in denying its motion to strike portions of the evidence Harris designated in his response to Orange County's motion for summary judgment.

         [¶4] We affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment on Harris's wrongful termination claim because: (1) the Handbook did not constitute a valid unilateral contract; and (2) an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine did not apply to Harris. We also affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment on Harris's defamation claim because Orange County had a qualified privilege to deliver Harris's termination letter and there were no genuine issues of material fact. As we also conclude that the evidence Orange County challenges in its cross-appeal is not dispositive, we need not address whether the trial court erred in denying Orange County's motion to strike evidence.

         [¶5] We affirm.

         Issues

APPEAL
Whether the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Orange County on Harris's wrongful termination and defamation claims.
CROSS-APPEAL
Whether the trial court erred when it denied Orange County's motion to strike portions of Harris's designated evidence.

         Facts

         [¶6] In 2013, Harris was employed by the Highway Department. Pursuant to his employment, he was assigned a Highway Department truck that he was allowed to take home after work. On August 7, 2013, an anonymous caller reported to the Indiana State Police that Harris was " driving a county highway truck with a female passenger while intoxicated and was yelling out the window." (App. 68). Indiana State Trooper Michael Allen (" Trooper Allen" ) and another officer drove to Harris's residence to investigate. Trooper Allen later reported:

Deputy Shipman and I drove up to his residence . . . and located a 2005 White Chevy truck with Municipal Plate 68133 sitting in the driveway. I felt the hood of the truck[,] and it was still hot. Mr. Harris exited his residence and asked what was going on. I explained to him that we had a complaint of him driving the County truck by the Sprint gas station while intoxicated and yelling out the window. Mr. Harris stated that he ha[d] not been to town but was in Mitchell earlier after work. He stated he drove the truck around 9:00 [p.m.] to the backside of his residence but denied being on the roadway. As I spoke to Mr. Harris I could smell [an] odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from his breath[,] and his eyes were very glossy. I did not observe any other signs of impairment. I asked him how much he had to drink[,] and he stated that he had been drinking since he got off work. I did give Mr. Harris a portable breath test[,] which tested positive for alcohol (.05)[.] I then told him I was going back to the Sprint gas station to pull the video of the time frame given to see if he was in fact there. He then stated that he forgot but he did go to the gas station to get cigarettes in the Company Vehicle. Mr. Harris then stated he had only [o]ne beer contrary to what he stated earlier. No charges were filed [] due to my observation that Mr. Harris was not intoxicated at the time of my contact with him. I did look inside the

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vehicle and there [were] no open containers[.]

(App. 68). The next day, Orange County sent Harris a letter stating that his employment with the Highway Department was terminated, effective immediately, due to Harris's " admission" to the troopers that he had driven a county highway truck " after drinking alcohol." (App. 69).

         [¶7] On January 9, 2014, Harris filed a complaint against Orange County seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. He claimed that Orange County had violated Indiana's open door law because it had not held a public meeting when it discussed terminating his employment. On March 21, 2014, Harris filed an amended complaint adding additional wrongful termination claims, as well as a defamation claim. With respect to the defamation claim, he argued that the allegations in his termination letter were defamatory and that Orange County had published the allegations because the letter was a public record. As a result of this asserted publication, Harris claimed that the allegations had damaged his reputation in the community and his ability to obtain further employment.

         [¶8] On August 27, 2014, Orange County filed a motion for summary judgment. It argued that there were no genuine issues of material fact left to determine because: (1) Harris's open door claim had been untimely; (2) Harris had been an at-will employee at the time of his termination and, therefore, his employment had not been wrongfully terminated; and (3) it had not defamed Harris because the allegations in Harris's termination letter were true; he had been the only recipient of the letter; and Orange County had possessed a qualified privilege to write and deliver the letter, which was a defense to defamation.

         [¶9] Harris filed a response to the motion for summary judgment, arguing that the trial court should deny the motion because there were still genuine issues of material fact left to decide, including whether: (1) Harris had operated the county truck while, or after, drinking; (2) the Handbook constituted a valid unilateral contract providing that Harris's employment could only be terminated for just cause; and (3) one of the exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine applied to Harris if the Handbook did not constitute a contract. Harris tendered designated evidence with his response, including an affidavit containing his version of the events that had occurred on the night of August 7, 2013; a political endorsement titled " Political ...


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