Fulbright & Jaworski LLP, New York, N.Y. (Douglas P. Catalano, Neil G. Sparber, and Samantha E. Beltre of counsel), for appellant.
Gary Greenwald, Chester, N.Y. (David A. Brodsky of counsel), for respondent.
RANDALL T. ENG, P.J., PETER B. SKELOS, MARK C. DILLON, LEONARD B. AUSTIN, JJ.
DECISION & ORDER
In an action to recover damages for fraudulent inducement and breach of contract, the defendant appeals from an order of the Supreme Court, Orange County (McGuirk, J.), dated July 7, 2011, which denied its motion pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (7) to dismiss the complaint.
ORDERED that the order is modified, on the law, (1) by deleting the provision thereof denying that branch of the defendant's motion which was pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) to dismiss the first cause of action, and substituting therefor a provision granting that branch of the motion, and (2) by deleting the provision thereof denying that branch of the defendant's motion which was pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) to dismiss the plaintiff's demand for punitive damages insofar as it relates to the second cause of action, and substituting therefor a provision granting that branch of the motion; as so modified, the order is affirmed, without costs or disbursements.
In April 2008, the plaintiff was approached by representatives of the defendant, Orange Regional Medical Center (hereinafter ORMC), to become its Vice President of Patient Care and Chief Nursing Officer. At the time, the plaintiff was employed by Benedictine Hospital. The plaintiff alleges that ORMC's chief executive officer and its vice president of human resources falsely represented to her that ORMC's nursing department had "passed" its most recent Joint Commission Survey. She alleges that she relied on these representations and left her position with Benedictine Hospital and accepted employment with ORMC.
In June 2009, ORMC and the plaintiff executed a written severance agreement which provided that, upon termination of the plaintiff's employment, for any reason other than voluntary resignation, cause, permanent disability, or death, ORMC would pay severance benefits to the plaintiff. The severance agreement defined the term "voluntary resignation" as "any termination caused by the Employee's own voluntary action without threats, intimidation or coercion by ORMC." The severance agreement also provided that "[n]othing in this agreement modifies the Employee's status as an employee at will." In a letter dated September 28, 2010, the plaintiff informed ORMC that she was resigning.
Thereafter, the plaintiff commenced this action against ORMC to recover damages for fraudulent inducement and breach of the severance agreement.
With respect to the first cause of action, alleging fraudulent inducement, the plaintiff alleged that ORMC "was successful in inducing [her] to leave her prior employment... in order to become the director of [ORMC's] nursing department" by falsely representing the results of the Joint Commission Survey conducted immediately prior to her commencing employment with ORMC. She alleged that ORMC misrepresented to her that it "passed" the survey, even though it had only received a "conditional accreditation status." The plaintiff alleged that ORMC's representations were material to her since
"the failure to pass the Joint Commission Survey would have been indicative of problems with [ORMC], including potentially unsafe practices and procedures, and would have portended significantly more time and effort in order to perform the functions and job responsibilities for which [she] had been hired by [ORMC], including the additional time and effort required in order to bring [ORMC] in compliance with the Joint Commission's protocols, standards and goals."
In the second cause of action, the plaintiff sought to recover damages for breach of contract, alleging that her resignation was not a "voluntary resignation" within the meaning of the severance agreement because it was caused by ORMC's threats, intimidation, and coercion, which included, inter alia, allowing other ORMC employees to harass, intimidate, criticize, and berate her, disregarding her authority to direct the implementation of nursing policies and procedures, nursing standards and nurse staffing plans, and interfering with her obligations to assure competent health care to the patients and to comply with the nursing code of ethics. As a result, she alleged that she was entitled to the benefits set forth in the severance agreement but, despite demands for same, ORMC refused to provide those benefits to her.
ORMC moved pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (7) to dismiss the complaint. The Supreme Court denied the motion.
"A motion to dismiss a complaint based on documentary evidence may be appropriately granted only where the documentary evidence utterly refutes plaintiff's factual allegations, conclusively establishing a defense as a matter of law'" (Stein v Garfield Regency Condominium, 65 A.D.3d 1126, 1128, quoting Goshen v Mutual Life Ins. Co. of N.Y., 98 N.Y.2d 314, 326; see Leon v Martinez, 84 N.Y.2d 83, 87; Wild Oaks, LLC v Joseph A. Beehan, Jr., Gen. Contr., Inc., 77 A.D.3d 924). Further, "[i]n order for evidence to qualify as documentary, ' it must be unambiguous, authentic, and undeniable" (Granada Condominium III Assn. v Palomino, 78 A.D.3d 996, 996-997).
Initially, we note that the printout from the Joint Commission website and the plaintiff's resignation letter, upon which ORMC relied, were not, under the circumstances of this case, documentary evidence for the purpose of a motion pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) (see Granada Condominium III Assn. v Palomino, 78 A.D.3d at 997; Fontanetta v John Doe 1, 73 A.D.3d 78, 85-86). However, the severance agreement submitted by ORMC was documentary evidence within the meaning of CPLR 3211(a)(1) (see Leon v Martinez, 84 N.Y.2d at 87; Wild Oaks, LLC v Joseph A. Beehan, Jr. Gen. Contr., Inc., 77 A.D.3d 924; Stein v Garfield Regency Condominium, 65 A.D.3d at 1128), and the terms of that agreement conclusively demonstrate that the plaintiff's employment was at-will (see Horn v New York Times, 100 N.Y.2d 85, 90-91; Monheit v Petrocelli Elec. Co., Inc., 73 A.D.3d 714; McHenry v Lawrence, 66 A.D.3d 650, 651). Where, as here, "a plaintiff is offered only at-will employment, he or she will generally be unable to establish reasonable reliance on a prospective employer's representations" (Epifani v Johnson, 65 A.D.3d 224, 230; see Marino v Oakwood Care Ctr., 5 A.D.3d 740, 741), which is an element necessary to the recovery of damages under a theory of fraudulent inducement (see Epifani v Johnson, 65 A.D.3d at 230; Stone v Schulz, 231 A.D.2d 707, 708). The at-will employment doctrine thus bars a cause of action sounding in fraudulent inducement, even where the circumstances pertain to a plaintiff's acceptance of an offer of a position rather than his or her termination (see Epifani v Johnson, 65 A.D.3d at 230). Since the severance agreement established that the plaintiff accepted a position at ORMC as an employee at-will, she is barred from asserting the first cause of action alleging that she was fraudulently induced to accept the position based on alleged misrepresentations ...