may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
James A. Erickson,
Cannon Valley Co-Operative,
David Estrem, et al.,
Filed May 4, 1999
Goodhue County District Court
File No. C6971488
George L. May, Nicholas G. B. May, May Law Offices, 204 Sibley Street, Suite 202, Hastings, MN 55033 (for appellant)
James C. Selmer, Marc M. Berg, James C. Selmer & Associates, P.A., Daine Rauscher Plaza, 60 South Sixth Street, Suite 2120, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondent Cannon Valley Co-Operative)
Laura J. McKinght, Mary L. Galvin, Bassford, Lockhart, Truesdell & Briggs, P.A., 3550 Multifoods Tower, 33 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondent David Estrem, et al.)
Considered and decided by Short, Presiding Judge, Kalitowski, Judge, and Klaphake, Judge.
Appellant James Erickson challenges the summary judgment in favor of respondents Cannon Valley Co-Operative, David Estrem, and Chris Peterson, contending there are genuine issues of material fact as to his claims of equitable estoppel, promissory estoppel, and defamation. He also argues the district court erred by granting summary judgment while his discovery request was pending. We affirm.
A. Equitable estoppel
Appellant argued to the district court that the employee handbook and supervisory manual (the manuals) constituted a unilateral contract requiring Cannon Valley to follow procedures pertaining to progressive discipline. The district court held that certain disclaimers in the manuals, which stated that employment was at will and that the manuals were not intended to be a contract, precluded formation of a unilateral contract. While not challenging this ruling, appellant contends Cannon Valley was equitably estopped from denying the manuals were a unilateral contract. We disagree.
Equitable estoppel is usually a fact question, but it becomes a question of law "when only one inference can be drawn from the facts." L & H Transp., Inc. v. Drew Agency, Inc., 403 N.W.2d 223, 227 (Minn. 1987). Equitable estoppel requires a showing that the plaintiff reasonably relied on representations or inducements made by the defendant and that the plaintiff will be harmed unless estoppel is allowed. Northern Petrochemical Co. v. United States Fire Ins. Co., 277 N.W.2d 408, 410 (Minn. 1979). A party may not invoke estoppel "unless he was ignorant of the true situation when he acted." Davis v. Newcombe Oil Co., 203 Minn. 295, 299-300, 281 N.W. 272, 274 (1938) (holding that estoppel not warranted where party aware of contract provisions but misconstrued them).
Appellant contends a factual question arises as to whether he reasonably believed Cannon Valley would apply progressive discipline rather than fire him outright. But below the progressive disciplinary provisions, the manuals state in bold print: "No employee is guaranteed the right to progressive discipline." The manuals also warn that "Management may exercise judgment in determining if the severity of the employee's actions should result in immediate discipline." In light of this clear, undisputed language, as well as the statement that employment is at will, we conclude the district court properly determined that, as a matter of law, appellant could not reasonably rely on the progressive discipline provisions in the manuals.
B. Promissory estoppel
Promissory estoppel implies a contract-in-law when none exists in fact. Grouse v. Group Health Plan, Inc., 306 N.W.2d 114, 116 (Minn. 1981). Promissory estoppel requires a promise, an intent to induce reliance and reliance, and the need to enforce the promise to avoid injustice. Id. In employment cases, such reliance may occur when an employee, based on an offer from a new employer, quits his or her current job in reliance on the new position, and then, before starting the new position, learns that the offer is withdrawn. See id. A claim for promissory estoppel may occur even after employment has begun "under appropriate circumstances." Id. But even then, the employee must show reliance. Dumas v. Kessler & Maguire Funeral Home, 380 N.W.2d 544, 548 (Minn. App. 1986).
Appellant claims he relied on the progressive discipline provisions in the manuals. But the only reliance appellant can show is his continued employment with Cannon Valley and his failure to seek new jobs; he does not contend he turned down any job offers in reliance on this "promise." We conclude as a matter of law, that appellant did not show the reliance necessary for a claim of promissory estoppel.
it must be communicated to someone other than the plaintiff, it must be false, and it must tend to harm the plaintiff's reputation and to lower him in the estimation of the community.
Stuempges v. Parke, Davis & Co., 297 N.W.2d 252, 255 (Minn. 1980).
Here, two board members made the allegedly defamatory statements in response to specific questions from individuals involved in the cooperative. Peterson stated: "If you knew what he did, you would have done the same thing," and Estrem said, "if we did publicize [the reason for termination], it would really hurt [appellant's] reputation." We conclude that these statements are not specific or precise, and are not the type of statements that can be verified or proven false. See Hunt v. University of Minn., 465 N.W.2d 88, 94 (Minn. App. 1991) (upholding district court determination that statements were opinions because they were not specific, readily verified or understood as fact in context in which they were made). Nor can the statements reasonably be interpreted as stating facts. See Geraci v. Eckankar, 526 N.W.2d 391, 397-98 (Minn. App. 1995) (upholding district court determination that statements were not defamatory because they could not reasonably be interpreted as stating facts), review denied (Minn. Mar. 14, 1995), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 818 (1995). Finally, the statements do not imply "a specific type of reprehensible conduct." See Weissman v. Sri Lanka Curry House, Inc., 469 N.W.2d 471, 473 (Minn. App. 1991) (holding statement that plaintiff was "dishonest" actionable defamation). We conclude the district court properly granted summary judgment in favor of respondents on appellant's defamation claim and we need not address appellant's contentions that the district court erred in its rulings regarding damages and qualified privilege.
Appellant argues that additional discovery would have enabled him to show that the alleged reasons for his termination were groundless. However, because we have determined appellant's employment was at will, the employer did not need a reason to terminate the employment. See Cederstrand, 263 Minn. at 532, 117 N.W.2d at 221. Further, discovery would not save appellant's promissory estoppel claim because appellant himself did not show the necessary reliance. Also, additional discovery would not save appellant's defamation claim because there is nothing discoverable that could make the statements at issue specific or verifiable, nor could discovery convert them to statements of fact. Because appellant cannot establish prejudice, we conclude the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying further discovery.