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Warrington v. Great Falls Clinic, LLP

Supreme Court of Montana

May 14, 2019

LISA WARRINGTON, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
GREAT FALLS CLINIC, LLP, Defendant, Appellee and Cross-Appellant.

          Submitted on Briefs: January 23, 2019

          District Court of the Eighth Judicial District, In and For the County of Cascade, Cause No. BDV-15-118(C) Honorable John A. Kutzman, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Timothy McKittrick, McKittrick Law Firm, Great Falls, Montana

          For Appellee: Adam Warren, Gerry Fagan, Moulton Bellingham PC, Billings, Montana

          Jim Rice Justice

         ¶1 Lisa Warrington (Warrington) appeals an order granting partial summary judgment to Great Falls Clinic, LLP (the Clinic), and challenges jury instructions given by the District Court at trial. The Clinic cross-appeals the District Court's denial of its trial motion for judgment as a matter of law, the $220, 000 in damages awarded by the jury on Warrington's breach of contract claims, and asserted trial evidentiary errors. We affirm the appeal and cross appeal, and restate the parties' issues as follows:

1. Did the District Court err by granting partial summary judgment to the Clinic on Warrington's tort claim for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and by denying Warrington's proposed instructions on her other tort claims?
2. Did the District Court err by admitting evidence of the Clinic's liability and Warrington's emotional distress?
3. Did the District Court err by denying the Clinic's motion for judgment as a matter of law regarding Warrington's damages?
4. Did the District Court err by failing to rule and instruct the jury that the contract was for a one-year term pursuant to § 39-2-602(1), MCA?

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶2 In 2014, after working at Benefis Hospital in Great Falls for approximately 22 years, Warrington applied for a job with the Clinic as a clinical manager. This position paid a higher annual salary than her job at Benefis, in addition to benefits. The Clinic offered the job to Warrington on October 7, and she accepted the next day. Warrington then notified Benefis that her last day of work would be Friday, October 24. On October 10, Warrington signed a written employment contract for an indefinite term with the Clinic, and the parties agreed that Warrington would begin work there on October 27.

         ¶3 On October 24, Warrington's last day at Benefis, the Clinic called Warrington and advised it would not be employing her after all. The Clinic would not provide a reason for withdrawing its offer of employment. Later, the Clinic indicated that Benefis officials had informed the Clinic that Warrington would not be a good fit for the Clinic. In actuality, a Clinic employee who formerly worked at Benefis had opined to the Clinic that Warrington would not be a good fit there. Warrington tried to return to her former job at Benefis, but Benefis would not re-hire her. Ultimately, Warrington moved to Helena to take fulltime employment there.

         ¶4 Warrington brought this action against the Clinic for breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and promissory estoppel. After discovery, the District Court entered partial summary judgment against the Clinic, holding it had breached the employment contract with Warrington and that the Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act (WDEA) did not apply, because the case involved an executory contract. The Clinic petitioned this Court for supervisory control, arguing the District Court was proceeding under a mistake of law. This Court affirmed the District Court's summary rulings that the WDEA did not apply and the Clinic had breached the contract, and remanded the matter "for further proceedings consistent with" our order. Great Falls Clinic LLP v. Mont. Eighth Judicial Dist. Ct., 2016 MT 245, ¶¶ 4, 13-15, 17, 385 Mont. 95, 381 P.3d 550.

         ¶5 On remand, Warrington moved for partial summary judgment on her tort claim for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing to establish as a matter of law that the requisite "special relationship" existed to support the claim, see Story v. Bozeman, 242 Mont. 436, 791 P.2d 767 (1990) (Story I), for which she sought damages for emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, embarrassment, anxiety, and punitive damages. The District Court concluded Warrington could not satisfy the elements of a special relationship, and granted summary judgment in favor of the Clinic on the issue, ruling that "if the jury does conclude that the Clinic breached the implied covenant, Ms. Warrington can recover her contract expectancy damages but not tort damages." The District Court denied Warrington's request to amend her complaint to add additional tort claims, including negligence, negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and wrongful failure to employ, and, accordingly, did not instruct the jury on any of Warrington's tort claims or on punitive damages.

         ¶6 During trial, the District Court admitted evidence offered by Warrington to which the Clinic objected as beyond the issues to be tried under the court's rulings. The court also denied the Clinic's motion for judgment as a matter of law on Warrington's damages and rejected the Clinic's proposed jury instruction regarding the term of employment contract. The jury awarded Warrington $220, 000 in contract damages.

         ¶7 Warrington appeals the District Court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the Clinic on her claim for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and the denial of her instructions regarding her other tort claims. The Clinic cross-appeals the evidentiary rulings made by the District Court, including admission of evidence that went beyond the court's pre-trial rulings, the court's denial of its motion for judgment as a matter of law, and the court's denial of its proposed instruction regarding the contract term.

         STANDARD ...


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