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Intentional and Negligent Misrepresentation Claims Will Not Survive Summary Judgment Absent Proof Of An Employer's Contractual Intent

Sheila Eichelberger v. Sinclair Broadcasting Group, Inc.,
No. L-08-77, 2009 WL 2229309 (D. Md. July 21, 2009).

In Eichelberger v. Sinclair Broadcasting Group, Inc., Eichelberger brought multiple state and federal causes of action against Sinclair Broadcasting Group ("Sinclair") when Sinclair terminated her employment while she was on bed rest for a multiple-birth pregnancy. Among several other counts, Eichelberger brought claims of intentional and negligent misrepresentation against her employer.

Eichelberger began working with Sinclair on December 5, 2005. On her date of hire, she received a Sinclair employee handbook and benefits package which, among other provisions, explicitly stated that she was an employee at-will. The handbook specifically and expressly informed Eichelberger that she did not have any contract of employment with Sinclair for any time period. It also alerted Eichelberger to Sinclair's employee benefits plan. All employees were to complete a 90-day probationary period before becoming eligible to receive employee benefits, including disability insurance benefits. The insurance policy also explicitly stated that it would not cover pre-existing conditions. After receiving and reviewing the materials, Eichelberger signed a statement stating that she understood those employment conditions. On June 1, 2006, Eichelberger completed the 90-day probationary period.

Prior to that date, in May 2006, Eichelberger learned that she was pregnant with quadruplets. She informed her supervisors that, due her multiple-birth pregnancy and its resultant complications, her doctor had placed her on bed-rest until her due date. Eichelberger alleged that her supervisor assured her that she could return to her position following the birth of her babies. While on bed-rest, Eichelberger was diagnosed with edema, for which she sought disability benefits from Sinclair's insurer.

Sinclair's insurer denied Eichelberger's request for benefits, informing Eichelberger that because she confirmed her pregnancy in May 2006, but did not become eligible for disability benefits until June 1, 2006, her pregnancy and resultant edema were considered "pre-existing conditions." Such pre-existing conditions were specifically excluded by the terms of the insurance policy. On September 8, 2006, while Eichelberger was still on bed-rest, Sinclair terminated her position, stating that her absence from work was not covered by any absence or benefit plan. Eichelberger filed suit shortly thereafter.

In reviewing Sinclair's Motion for Summary Judgment on Eichelberger's misrepresentation claims, the District Court for the District of Maryland noted that Eichelberger failed to present any proof to support her allegations. As to her misrepresentation claims, Eichelberger had provided no evidence to show that she justifiably relied on the alleged misrepresentations, which is required by both intentional and negligent misrepresentation torts. Because an at-will employment contract can be terminated at any time for any or no cause, the court held that an at-will employee cannot reasonably rely on an employer's statements that a job will be held until the employee returns from a long absence. This is especially true when an employee, like Eichelberger, has been clearly informed of her at-will employment status. Further, the court noted, because Eichelberger's doctor had ordered her to stop working once she was diagnosed with edema, Eichelberger would have stopped working regardless of whether she received those oral reassurances. Therefore, she could not prove that she relied to her detriment on her supervisors' alleged misrepresentations. On these counts, the court granted Sinclair's Motion for Summary Judgment.

In Eichelberger v. Sinclair Broadcasting Group, Inc., the District Court for the District of Maryland made clear that at-will employees cannot reasonable rely on their employer's reassurances that a position will be held for them during a long-term absence. An at-will employment contract, which is of indefinite duration, is terminable by either party at any time. Oral reassurances that contradict this notion will not change this principle. More broadly, this case stands for the proposition that at-will employees will be precluded from suing employers for negligent or intentional misrepresentations when the employees are made expressly aware of their employment conditions. 

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