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Minovici v. Belkin BV

Supreme Court of New York, Second Department

August 14, 2013

Catalin Minovici, also known as Alin Minovici, et al., appellants,
v.
Belkin BV, et al., respondents. (Index No. 5523/09)

Emanuel F. Saris, Rye, N.Y., for appellants.

Bryan Cave LLP, New York, N.Y. (Jay P. Warren of counsel), for respondents.

RUTH C. BALKIN, J.P., L. PRISCILLA HALL, PLUMMER E. LOTT, ROBERT J. MILLER, JJ.

DECISION & ORDER

In an action, inter alia, to recover damages for breach of contract, the plaintiffs appeal from an order of the Supreme Court, Dutchess County (Pagones, J.), dated January 5, 2012, which granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (7).

ORDERED that the order is modified, on the law, by deleting the provision thereof granting those branches of the defendants' motion which were pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (7) to dismiss the seventh cause of action, which was for a judgment declaring that the defendants breached their obligations under a certain employment contract with the plaintiff Catalin Minovici, also known as Alin Minovici, and substituting therefor a provision denying those branches of the motion; as so modified, the order is affirmed, with costs to the defendants, and the matter is remitted to the Supreme Court, Dutchess County, for the entry of a judgment, inter alia, declaring that the defendants did not breach their obligations under the subject employment contract.

The plaintiff Catalin Minovici, also known as Alin Minovici (hereinafter Catalin), entered into a written employment contract dated May 1, 2008, with the defendant Belkin, Ltd., pursuant to which he agreed to serve in its offices in the United Kingdom as the Information Systems (hereinafter IS) Director. One month later, and before work started, Catalin entered into a written employment contract dated June 10, 2008 (hereinafter the June 2008 employment contract), for the same position with the defendant Belkin BV, pursuant to which he agreed to serve in its offices in the Netherlands. Catalin, allegedly in reliance upon the June 2008 employment contract, as well as the defendants' representations, took certain steps necessary to relocate to the Netherlands, including the sale of his house in Dutchess County. Prior to the start date of his employment, an agent of Belkin BV notified Catalin that his position was no longer available, and offered him a junior position at a lower salary.

Catalin and his wife, the plaintiff Laura Minovici (hereinafter together the plaintiffs), commenced this action alleging, inter alia, causes of action to recover damages for breach of contract (the first cause of action), and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing (the fifth cause of action), as well as causes of action sounding in fraud and fraudulent inducement (the second, third, and fourth causes of action), and intentional infliction of emotional distress (the sixth cause of action). The plaintiffs also sought a judgment declaring that the defendants breached their obligations under the June 2008 employment contract (the seventh cause of action). The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (7). The Supreme Court granted the defendants' motion.

The Supreme Court correctly granted those branches of the defendants' motion which were pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (7) to dismiss the first cause of action, which alleged breach of contract. On a motion to dismiss a complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7), the court must liberally construe the complaint, accept all facts as alleged in the pleading to be true, accord the plaintiff the benefit of every favorable inference, and determine only whether the facts as alleged fit within any cognizable legal theory (see Leon v Martinez, 84 N.Y.2d 83, 87-88; Rabos v R & R Bagels & Bakery, Inc., 100 A.D.3d 849, 851; Daub v Future Tech Enter., Inc., 65 A.D.3d 1004, 1005). Further, the court may consider any factual submissions made in opposition to a motion to dismiss a pleading in order to remedy pleading defects (see Quinones v Schaap, 91 A.D.3d 739, 740; Daub v Future Tech Enter., Inc., 65 A.D.3d at 1005). Nevertheless, "bare legal conclusions and factual claims which are flatly contradicted by the record are not presumed to be true" (Parola, Gross & Marino, P.C. v Susskind, 43 A.D.3d 1020, 1021-1022; see Daub v Future Tech Enter., Inc., 65 A.D.3d at 1005). Moreover, "[w]here evidentiary material is submitted and considered on a motion to dismiss a complaint pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7), and the motion is not converted into one for summary judgment, the question becomes whether the plaintiff has a cause of action, not whether the plaintiff has stated one, and unless it has been shown that a material fact as claimed by the plaintiff to be one is not a fact at all and unless it can be said that no significant dispute exists regarding it, dismissal should not eventuate" (Rabos v R & R Bagels & Bakery, Inc., 100 A.D.3d at 851-852; see Guggenheimer v Ginzburg, 43 N.Y.2d 268, 274-275).

A motion to dismiss a complaint based on documentary evidence pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) may only be granted "where the documentary evidence utterly refutes plaintiff's factual allegations, conclusively establishing a defense as a matter of law" (Goshen v Mutual Life Ins. Co. of N.Y., 98 N.Y.2d 314, 326; see Rabos v R & R Bagels & Bakery, Inc., 100 A.D.3d at 851).

"New York adheres to the traditional common-law rule that absent an agreement establishing a fixed duration, an employment relationship is presumed to be a hiring at will, terminable at any time by either party" (Monheit v Petrocelli Elec. Co., Inc., 73 A.D.3d 714, 715; see Smalley v Dreyfus Corp., 10 N.Y.3d 55, 58; Horn v New York Times, 100 N.Y.2d 85, 90-91). In support of their motion to dismiss the complaint, the defendants submitted the June 2008 employment contract, setting forth the terms of the employment relationship. The June 2008 employment contract contained a merger clause reciting that the writing encompassed the entire agreement between the parties. Contrary to the plaintiffs' contention, the June 2008 employment contract did not provide for a fixed or definite term of employment, as it expressly provided that Catalin was to be employed "for an indefinite period of time." Moreover, the June 2008 employment contract provided that either party could, without notice, terminate the employment relationship with immediate effect during the first two months after its execution, and thereafter with certain notice. Further, the plaintiffs themselves alleged in the complaint that, pursuant to the June 2008 employment contract, Catalin's employment was "to continue without any specific date for termination." Thus, Catalin was presumptively an at-will employee (see Rooney v Tyson, 91 N.Y.2d 685, 689; Rossetti v Aretakis, 78 A.D.3d 1148, 1149; Devany v Brockway Dev., LLC, 72 A.D.3d 1008, 1008-1009). The plaintiffs failed to allege facts that would rebut the at-will presumption or limit Belkin BV's right to freely terminate Catalin's employment.

Contrary to the plaintiffs' contention, Belkin BV's offer to pay Catalin a housing allowance for a maximum of two years did not create a fixed term of employment or rebut the presumption of at-will employment. This offer was incidental to Catalin's employment and did not, in any way, bind the parties to a two-year term of employment (see Chase v United Hosp., 60 A.D.2d 558, 559; Johnson v Cheney Bros., 277 App.Div. 656, 658-659; see also Cartwright v Golub Corp., 51 A.D.2d 407, 409).

The plaintiffs contend that the earlier contract, dated May 1, 2008, pursuant to which Catalin agreed to serve as IS Director in the United Kingdom, altered the terms of employment as set forth in the subsequent June 2008 employment contract. However, the contract dated May 1, 2008, was superseded by the June 2008 employment contract, since it covered the same subject matter (see Northville Indus. Corp. v Fort Neck Oil Terms. Corp., 100 A.D.2d 865, 867, affd 64 N.Y.2d 930; Medtech Prods. Inc. v Ranir, LLC, 596 F.Supp.2d 778, 809-810 [SD NY]). Furthermore, the complaint's allegations as to Catalin's conduct, which included preparations taken to move to the Netherlands, demonstrated an abandonment of the contract dated May 1, 2008 (see Jones v Trice, 202 A.D.2d 394, 395).

Contrary to the plaintiffs' contention, Belkin BV's offer to Catalin of a junior-ranking position at a lower salary did not constitute a breach of the June 2008 employment contract. When there is an at-will employment relationship, the employer may unilaterally alter the terms of employment, and the employee may end the employment if the new terms are unacceptable (see Hanlon v Macfadden Publs., 302 NY 502, 505; Kronick v L.P. Thebault Co., Inc., 70 A.D.3d 648, 649; JCS Controls, Inc. v Stacey, 57 A.D.3d 1372, 1373-1374).

Furthermore, since Catalin was an employee at-will, the fifth cause of action, which alleged that the defendants violated the covenant of good faith and fair dealing implied into the employment contract, provides no basis for recovery, and the Supreme Court properly granted those branches of the defendants' motion which were to dismiss that cause of action pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(1) and (7) (see Murphy v American Home Prods. Corp., 58 N.Y.2d 293, 304-305; DiLacio v New York City Dist. Council of United Bhd. of Carpenters & Joiners of Am., 80 ...


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