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Watson v. Franklin University

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Tenth District

July 18, 2019

Nana Watson, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Franklin University, Defendant-Appellee.

          APPEAL from the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas (C.P.C. No. 16CV-9530)

         On brief:

          Ambrose Moses, III, for appellant.

          Kegler, Brown, Hill & Ritter Co., L.PA. and Robert G. Cohen, for appellee.

         Argued:

          Ambrose Moses, III.

          Robert G. Cohen.

          DECISION

          BRUNNER, J.

         {¶ 1} Plaintiff-appellant, Nana Watson, appeals from a decision of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas entered on January 20, 2018. In its decision, the trial court granted the motion for summary judgment filed by defendant-appellee, Franklin University ("university"), as to Watson's claim for promissory estoppel. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the decision of the trial court.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         {¶ 2} This matter commenced on October 5, 2016 through the refiling of an earlier case, Franklin C.P. No. 15CV-1316. See generally Oct. 5, 2016 Compl. In her complaint, Watson asserted three claims against the university: breach of contract, breach of implied covenant of good faith and contract, and promissory estoppel. On March 30, 2017, the university filed its first motion for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of all three of Watson's causes of action. By decision and entry filed July 31, 2017, the trial court granted the university's motion as to Watson's claims for breach of contract and breach of implied covenant of good faith and contract, leaving only the claim for promissory estoppel before the trial court.

         {¶ 3} On December 14, 2017, after discovery had commenced, the university filed a motion for summary judgment regarding Watson's claim for promissory estoppel. Watson filed a memorandum in opposition on January 8, 2018. The university filed a reply on January 16, 2018. On January 30, 2018, the trial court issued and filed in the record a 16-page decision and entry granting the university's motion for summary judgment and dismissing Watson's claim for promissory estoppel. Watson timely appealed the trial court's judgment.

         B. Facts

         {¶ 4} On January 3, 2011, Watson was hired as the university's director of development. On November 13, 2013, she received a letter from Christi Cabungcal, the university's Chief of Staff and Senior Vice President, Administration, notifying Watson that her position was eliminated effective November 13, 2013 (the same day), which also would be her last date of employment. Numbered paragraphs one and six of the letter included an offer to continue Watson's salary for up to six months from that date, subject to certain conditions, as follows:

1. The University will continue your normal, full-time compensation, unless you obtain full-time employment as discussed below, through May 13, 2014. * * *
* * *
6. If you obtain full-time employment prior to May 13, 2014 your compensation will cease as of the date you begin your full-time employment. If you obtain part-time employment prior to May 13, 2014, your compensation will be reduced by the amount received as a result of the part-time employment. You agree to provide us evidence of such employment immediately.

(Ex. 1 at 1, Compl.) The final paragraph of the university's letter stated:

There are no conditions, agreements or understandings between the University and you other than those set forth in this letter. You are entitled to a period of twenty-one (21) calendar days in which to review and consider signing this document before signing it. You may use as much, or as little, of this time as you desire; however, as I am sure you can understand, no payments or other consideration can be made until our agreement is signed and becomes effective. In addition, if you should change your mind for any reason, you may rescind the agreement anytime within seven (7) days after the date of your signature by delivering written notice of revocation to Christi Cabungcal, Chief of Staff and Senior Vice President, Administration. We encourage you to consult your own attorney before signing this document.

(Emphasis sic.) Id. at 2. Printed on the letter, below Cabungcal's signature block, was a place for Watson to sign to signify her acceptance of the university's terms.

         {¶ 5} By letter dated November 27, 2013, Watson rejected the university's proposed severance package and countered with her own proposed agreement. Watson's proposal included provisions requiring the university to extend her normal compensation and health insurance benefits for an additional year, through May 13, 2015, without regard to any employment she might obtain elsewhere before that date.

         {¶ 6} Watson discussed her counteroffer with Cabungcal by telephone the morning of December 3, 2013. At 10:24 a.m. that day, Cabungcal e-mailed Watson a summary of their telephone conversation, which included the bullet points from Watson's counteroffer letter, including the bullet point that noted continuation of full-time compensation and insurance benefits through May 13, 2015. Sometime between 10:24 a.m. and 3:38 p.m. on December 3, Cabungcal advised Watson by telephone that the end date for the severance package was 2014, not 2015. At 3:48 p.m. on December 3, 2018, Cabungcal e-mailed the following correction to Watson:

This email serves as a correction to the email below [sent at 10:24 a.m.]. As I stated in our phone call this afternoon, I misread the first bullet point to be 2014 as opposed to 2015 which is why I put 2014 in the revised agreement I gave you today. [The university] is agreeable to May of 2014.

(Ex. 1 at 6, Compl.)

         {¶ 7} Forty-four minutes later, at 4:32 p.m., Watson e-mailed her response to Cabungcal, stating she hoped the university would honor the 2015 date and acknowledging that an agreement would need ...


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