Seventh District: Jury Should Determine if Christian Camp Can Fire Employee for Moving In with Her Boyfriend
A jury should consider whether the leaders of a Christian youth leadership development program and sports camp broke a promise by firing an employee after she and her boyfriend moved in together, an Ohio appeals court ruled.
The Seventh District Court of Appeals reversed a Jefferson County Common Pleas Court decision finding that Brightway Center, Inc. was within its right to terminate Jennifer Trehar after her boyfriend moved in with her, because it objected on religious grounds.
Trehar first went to work for Brightway in Smithfield in 2009, as a freelancer to do promotional work and was hired full-time in May 2010. Her duties included planning events, attending meetings with Chief Executive Officer Daryle Griffin, and attending various functions. In May 2012, Trehar informed Griffin that she planned to move in with her boyfriend and said Griffin congratulated her. As the move approached, Trehar said she received Griffin’s permission to miss a work function in order to help her boyfriend move into their new home.
About two weeks later, Trehar, Griffin and another Brightway employee attended a lunch together and the move was discussed. Griffin claims this was the first he heard Trehar had moved in with her boyfriend. In mid-July, the board of directors sent Trehar a letter indicating that as a Christian organization, it had concerns about how her living arrangement would impact others. They suspended her for the month with pay and gave her the option to return to work Aug. 1 if she either married her boyfriend or moved out.
“We simply cannot reconcile our affections and appreciation for you with our belief that living together outside marriage is forbidden by the Scriptures,” the letter said.
Trehar did not change her living arrangements and was fired. She filed a complaint claiming “promissory estoppel,” by asserting that Brightway assured her employment because Griffin represented to her that she would not be fired for moving in with her boyfriend and she relied on his word as CEO of the company.
Brightway sought summary judgment, claiming Trehar had no evidence that it made any specific promises to her of continued employment, and Trehar acknowledged she had signed a copy of the employee handbook indicating she was an “at-will” employee who could be fired at any time.
At a hearing, the trial court judge stated there were genuine issues for a jury to consider about whether there was promise to continue Trehar’s employment. The court overruled Brightway’s motion for summary judgment. However, two days later, the court indicated it reviewed the Seventh District’s 2007 Dunn v. Bruzzese Jr. decision, and, based on it, ruled in favor of Brightway. The court found that case required Trehar provide evidence of a clear and unambiguous promise of continuous employment, and she did not. In May 2014, Trehar appealed to the Seventh District.
Writing for the appellate court, Judge Gene Donofrio wrote that while Ohio is an “at-will” employment state that allows a job to be terminated for any reason not contrary to law, promissory estoppel is an exception to the rule. To win on a promissory-estoppel claim, Trehar had to prove a clear and unambiguous promise was made; that it was reasonable to rely on that promise; and relying on the promise led to an injury such as being terminated.
Judge Donofrio noted that when responding to questions posed by Brightway’s attorneys, Trehar provided several instances where she informed Griffin and other Brightway workers about her move, as well as conversations with Griffin. Griffin, in turn, testified he was aware that Trehar was helping her boyfriend move, but did not know they were moving in together.
Judge Donofrio found the trial court was incorrect in relying on Dunn,because in that case, the employer made several statements to his secretary over the years that he wanted her to move with him from job to job with the hope they would work together until they both retired. When the employer fired the secretary, the court found the statements he made never amounted to a clear promise of continued employment.
In Trehar’s case, Judge Donofrio noted that clear promises can either be statements that were made, or silence when the person ought to speak out. He ruled that there is evidence that Griffin should have spoken up when information was presented and “his silence can be construed as a promise that no adverse employment action would come as a result of her move.”
The Seventh District cautioned that by remanding the case to the trial court, it was not indicating that Trehar proved Brightway promised not to fire her for moving in with her boyfriend.
“This is not to say that Trehar will necessarily prevail at trial,” Judge Donofrio wrote. “When exactly Griffin learned of Trehar’s intended move and his actions in response to this information are questions of fact for a jury.”
Judges Cheryl L. Waite and Carol Ann Robb concurred in the opinion.
Trehar v. Brightway Ctr., 2015-Ohio-4144
Civil Appeal from: Jefferson County Common Pleas Court
Judgment Appealed From Is: Reversed
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: Oct. 2, 2015
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