Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Community Foundation of Northwest Indiana, Inc. v. Miranda

Court of Appeals of Indiana

March 19, 2019

Community Foundation of Northwest Indiana, Inc., St. Mary Medical Center, Inc., and Rebecca Iwanus, Appellants-Defendants,
v.
Elizabeth A. Miranda, Appellee-Plaintiff.

          Appeal from the Lake Superior Court The Honorable Calvin D. Hawkins, Judge. Trial Court Cause No. 45D02-1511-PL-83

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS Michael D. Sears Jacquelyn S. Pillar Crown Point, Indiana

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE D. Eric Neff Crown Point, Indiana

          Tavitas, Judge.

         Case Summary

         [¶1] Community Foundation of Northwest Indiana, Inc. ("Community"), St. Mary Medical Center, Inc. ("St. Mary's"), and Rebecca Iwanus (collectively, "Defendants") appeal the trial court's denial of their motion for summary judgment in proceedings brought by Elizabeth Miranda. We reverse and remand.

         Issue

         [¶2] Defendants raise one issue, which we restate as whether the trial court properly denied Defendants' motion for summary judgment.

         Facts

         [¶3] Miranda began working at St. Mary's in 2014 as a nurse on the oncology floor. Miranda was unemployed prior to beginning her job at St. Mary's. After approximately six months of employment at St. Mary's, Miranda requested and was granted a transfer within St. Mary's to a new position as a nurse liaison in the emergency department. According to Defendants, the nurse liaison's role was:

At the time of "arriving" a patient [which occurs when a patient arrives at the emergency department and registration employees input the patient into the hospital's system], if a nurse liaison was present, her job was to instruct the registration employee as to the patient's chief complaint after discussion with the patient. If the nurse liaison was not present, the registration employee would input the chief complaint based on the patient's description, and the liaison would later amend the complaint, as necessary.

Appellants' App. Vol. II p. 41 (internal citations omitted). Miranda claims, because the position was relatively new to St. Mary's, the assigned duties of the nurse liaison evolved as the position became more developed. "Arriving" a patient essentially means noting their arrival time to the emergency department. See Appellant's App. Vol. II p. 104 (Iwanus states that, "When a patient came up to the desk, we were to take their ID, arrive the patient"); see also Appellant's App. Vol. III p. 8 (Miranda explains that her role as a nurse liaison changed, and "[d]uties were added. At first we were supposed to be strictly at the registration, or the desk, to arrive the patient and get the chief complaint"). Arriving a patient is important because certain procedures would need to be followed for certain patients within a pre-determined time period depending on the patient's symptoms. For example, patients who came in complaining of chest pain would need to be given an EKG within a certain time period after the patient's arrival. Thus, noting a patient's arrival time is important for purposes of rendering adequate and timely care.

         [¶4] Greg Sampson is the Director of Emergency Services at St. Mary's and was Miranda's direct supervisor. Iwanus was the supervisor of the registration employees in the emergency department, and she supervised the registration employees with whom Miranda, as nurse liaison, would work in the emergency department.[1] In April 2015 (the "April meeting"), Sampson notified Miranda that he received an email in March, complaining that Miranda was asking the registration employees to delay recording the time of "arriving" patients, which was "un[]ethical." Appellants' App. Vol. III p. 189.

         [¶5] Miranda claims that Sampson showed her the email complaint in the April meeting authored by Iwanus. Iwanus, however, denies ever complaining about Miranda. Until this point, Miranda stated that she and Iwanus never had any issues with one another. Miranda admitted that she recalled asking a registration employee to delay an "arriving" patient time in March 2015. At the April meeting, Sampson instructed Miranda not to ask registration employees to delay "arriving" patient times again.

         [¶6] In July 2015, Miranda received her positive review for her performance during the time period from March 10, 2014, until March 10, 2015, which was prior to the date of the complaint Sampson received regarding Miranda's request to delay "arriving" patient times. Later that month, on July 23, 2015 (the "July meeting"), Miranda was summoned to a meeting with Sampson and a human resources representative. Sampson presented Miranda with a notice of corrective action for again asking employees to delay "arriving" patients. Sampson received complaints that Miranda again made the request to registration employees on two separate occasions on July 20, 2015. Miranda denies that she asked the registration employees to delay "arriving" patient times again. Miranda informed Sampson that she would be submitting a rebuttal to challenge the accusations made against her.

         [¶7] After the July meeting, Miranda was suspended and escorted out. Immediately after Miranda was escorted out, she contacted Lori Alicea, one of the registration employees, and informed Alicea that Miranda had been suspended, with the possibility of termination, due to allegations that Miranda was delaying patient treatment. According to Miranda, Alicea "became emotional" and apologized because Alicea had raised the issue in July to supervisors, because she was looking for direction on the proper course of action, and her intent was not to get Miranda fired. Appellant's App. Vol. II p. 202. Miranda also contacted Gwen Perfetti, another nurse liaison and also told Perfetti that she was suspended with a possibility of termination. Miranda claims she received several phone calls from coworkers once they became aware of her suspension.

         [¶8] After Miranda's suspension, Miranda submitted a rebuttal on July 27, 2015, and attempted to begin the problem solving procedure outlined in the employee handbook. Sampson terminated Miranda on July 29. After her termination, Miranda's nursing license was due for renewal, and Miranda was required to list her termination on her renewal application. Miranda was required to participate in a hearing before the Board of Nursing ("the Board") to renew her license. While Miranda's hearing was pending, her license was put on temporary status, but ultimately, Miranda's license was renewed by the Board.

         [¶9] On November 17, 2015, Miranda filed her "Complaint for Damages and Injunctive Relief" (the "Complaint") against Defendants. Miranda's Complaint alleges Count I, "Breach of Contract/Wrongful Termination"; Count II, "Defamation, Libel & Slander Against Community and/or St. Mary's"; Count III, "Defamation, Libel & Slander Against Iwanus"; Count IV, "Negligence Against Iwanus, Community, and/or St Mary's"; Count V, "Promissory Estoppel"; and Count VI, "Tortious Interference with Contractual Relationship/Business Relations." Id. at 14-22. We address the basis for each claim further below.

         [¶10] Miranda's complaint also sought injunctive relief, asking the trial court to issue an injunction (1) prohibiting Defendants from sharing any information regarding Miranda's employment with Community and St. Mary's; (2) requiring St. Mary's and Community to remove all "negative and false notations" in Miranda's employment records; (3) prohibiting St. Mary's and Community from refusing Miranda entrance to the premises where Miranda's "current employment requires her attendance"; (4) requiring St. Mary's and Community to turn over any and all employment records related to Miranda; (5) requiring St. Mary's and Community to "remove any and all negative notations, comments, and/or findings . . . . associated with [Miranda's] nursing license"; and (6) requiring St. Mary's and Community to immediately stop all communications with the Board related to Miranda's nursing license until the resolution of Miranda's lawsuit. Id. at 23.

         [¶11] Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on January 31, 2018. After a hearing on May 16, 2018, the trial court concluded that it would take the motion under advisement.[2] The trial court ultimately entered an order on May 23, 2018, denying Defendants' motion for summary judgment and certifying the order for interlocutory appeal sua sponte.

         Analysis

         [¶12] Defendants appeal the trial court's denial of their motion for summary judgment on all counts of Miranda's complaint. Summary judgment is appropriate only when the moving party shows there are no genuine issues of material fact for trial and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Erie Indem. Co. for Subscribers at Erie Ins. Exch. v. Estate of Harris by Harris, 99 N.E.3d 625, 629 (Ind. 2018), reh'g denied; see also Ind. Trial Rule 56(C). Once that showing is made, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to designate appropriate evidence to demonstrate the actual existence of a genuine issue of material fact. Schoettmer v. Wright, 992 N.E.2d 702, 705-06 (Ind. 2013). When ruling on the motion, the trial court construes all evidence and resolves all doubts in favor of the non-moving party. Id. at 706. We review the trial court's ruling on a motion for summary judgment de novo, and we take "care to ensure that no party is denied his day in court." Id. "We limit our review to the materials designated at the trial level." Gunderson v. State, Indiana Dep't of Nat. Res., 90 N.E.3d 1171, 1175 (Ind. 2018).

         A. Breach of Contract, Promissory Estoppel, Wrongful Termination

         [¶13] Defendants argue that the trial court erred by denying their motion for summary judgment on Miranda's breach of contract claim. Miranda's basis for her breach of contract claim is that she signed an employment offer letter and on-boarding schedule (the "offer letter") and an employee handbook (the "handbook"), which applies to all St. Mary's employees, when she began her employment with St. Mary's in 2014. Miranda contends that the offer letter and the handbook constitute her employment contract. In response, Defendants claim that Miranda was an at-will employee, who was terminated due to performance issues. Importantly, Defendants note that the handbook squarely states it is not a contract of employment.

         i. The Documents

         [¶14] First, we analyze the contents of the documents Miranda contends are contracts. The offer letter includes directions at the top, which state:

Please review the following form and provide your electronic signature at the far bottom to indicate your acceptance of the terms of employment. If you do not accept these terms, have any changes or if you have any questions, please contact your HR representative promptly.

         Appellants' App. Vol. II p. 93. The offer letter contains personal information about Miranda, including her name, address, phone number, date of birth; date of hire; job title; manager; starting rate; shift; pay group; benefit program; job code; department; and hours worked per pay period. The offer letter also states:

This offer of employment and your continued employment with [sic] is contingent upon your successful completion of an employee health and background screening. Please indicate you accept this agreement by providing your electronic signature below.

Id. Miranda signed and dated the offer letter on February 25, 2014. Once Miranda transferred to the emergency department, she received an email titled, "Employee Transfer Information," which included most of the same information that was included in the offer letter. Notably, there is a start date listed, but no term of employment on either document.

         [¶15] The handbook, a separate document, states that it "is not a contract guaranteeing employment for any specific duration. Although we hope that your employment relationship with us will be long-term, either you or Management may terminate this relationship at any time, for any reason, with or without cause or notice." Appellants' App. Vol. III p. 53. The handbook states that employment at St. Mary's is "at will." Id. at 63. The handbook also states that the policies contained in the handbook are "subject to change at the sole discretion of Management." Id. at 53. Finally, with regard to Miranda's specific allegations in this lawsuit, the handbook advises that "problem solving is not available to the following corrective action status: suspension which could result in termination." Appellants' App. Vol. II p. 96.

         ii. Types of Employment

         [¶16] In Orr v. Westminster Village North, Inc., our Supreme Court set forth the distinctions in the type of employment in Indiana. 689 N.E.2d 712, 717 (Ind. 1997).

Historically, Indiana has recognized two basic forms of employment: (1) employment for a definite or ascertainable term; and (2) employment at-will. If there is an employment contract for a definite term, and the employer has not reserved the right to terminate the employment before the conclusion of the contract, the employer generally may not terminate the employment relationship before the end of the specified term except for cause or by mutual agreement. If there is no definite or ascertainable term of employment, then the employment is at-will, and is presumptively terminable at any time, with or without cause, by either party. Wior v. Anchor Industries, Inc., 669 N.E.2d [172, ] 175 (Ind. 1996); Speckman v. Indianapolis, 540 N.E.2d 1189, 1192 (Ind. 1989) . . . .
The employment-at-will doctrine is a rule of contract construction, not a rule imposing substantive limitations on the parties' freedom to contract. Streckfus v. Gardenside Terrace Co-Op., Inc., 504 N.E.2d 273, 275 (Ind. 1987). If the parties choose to include a clear job security provision in an employment contract, the presumption that the employment is at-will may be rebutted. See Speckman, 540 N.E.2d at 1192; Streckfus, 504 N.E.2d at 275. Nevertheless, in Indiana, the presumption of at-will employment is strong, and this Court is disinclined to adopt broad and ill-defined exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine. []

Orr, 689 N.E.2d at 717-18.

         [¶17] Even though the presumption of at-will employment in Indiana is strong, our Supreme Court has acknowledged certain exceptions to the at-will employment presumption.

First, if an employee establishes that "adequate independent consideration" supports the employment contract, the Court generally will conclude that the parties intended to establish a relationship in which the employer may terminate the employee only for good cause. Generally, simply surrendering another job or moving to another location to accept a new position which the employee sought, standing alone, does not constitute adequate independent consideration.

** * * *

Second, we have recognized a public policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine if a clear statutory expression of a right or duty is contravened. For example, we have invoked the public policy exception when an employee was discharged for filing a workmen's compensation claim, or when an employee was discharged for refusing to commit an illegal act[.]
** * * *
Third, this Court has recognized that, in certain instances, an employee may invoke the doctrine of promissory estoppel. To do so effectively, the employee must plead or assert the doctrine with particularity. The employee must assert and demonstrate that the employer made a promise to the employee; that the employee relied on the promise to his detriment; and that the promise otherwise fits within the Restatement test for promissory estoppel.

Id. at 718 (citations omitted).

         [¶18] The Orr court also stated that it was going to "decline plaintiffs' invitation" to use that case to determine whether an employee handbook "can ever constitute a unilateral contract serving to modify the otherwise at-will employment ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.