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Blackwood v. Berry Dunn, LLC

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston

July 24, 2019

JULIA E. BLACKWOOD, Plaintiff,
v.
BERRY DUNN, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          John T. Copenhaver, Jr. Senior United States District Judge

         Pending is defendant Berry Dunn, LLC's (“Berry Dunn”) motion for summary judgment, filed June 11, 2019.

         I. Background

         The only surviving cause of action in this matter is plaintiff Julia Blackwood's claim against Berry Dunn for breach of promise and detrimental reliance.

         On March 16, 2017, Ms. Blackwood was fired from her job as a consultant with Berry Dunn during a meeting with certain Berry Dunn supervisors. Compl., ECF No. 1-1, ¶ 31. Ms. Blackwood asserts that during that same meeting, Berry Dunn's director of human resources, Debra Genender, “informed Blackwood she would be paid three weeks' severance pay.” Blackwood Aff., ECF No. 40-1, ¶ 32. Ms. Blackwood further states that when she was informed that she was being terminated, Ms. Genender told her that Berry Dunn would not leave her “empty handed.” Id. ¶ 48.

         On Friday, March 17, 2017, a day after Ms. Blackwood was informed that her employment was being terminated, Ms. Genender informed Ms. Blackwood by electronic mail that she was “being given 3 week's severance, so you will see 8 hours for yesterday, your accrued vacation time (55 hours) and 3 weeks of severance that will all be paid in the final check.” Id. ¶ 43; Compl., ECF No. 1-1, ¶ 42. Attached to that same email was Ms. Blackwood's final pay memorandum which included the “3 weeks of severance” amounting to $4, 038.46. Blackwood Aff., ECF No. 40-1, ¶¶ 43-44.

         Later that same day, Ms. Genender sent Ms. Blackwood another email stating that “[p]er West Virginia labor laws, we have to pay you within 4 business days. Therefore, you will see a direct deposit of all pay owed to you (from my previous email), no later than Wednesday, ” which would have been March 22, 2017. Id. ¶ 45. Ms. Blackwood claims that this email confirmed “Berry Dunn's payment of severance pay pursuant to the terms of its severance pay policy.” Id. On Tuesday, March 21, 2017, Ms. Genender sent Ms. Blackwood another email stating: “My previous email indicated that we would be providing you with severance payment. We are in the process of drafting a separation agreement with a waiver of claims that you will need to sign in order to be eligible for any severance payment.” Id. ¶ 47.

         On Wednesday, March 22, 2017, Ms. Blackwood sent an email to Ms. Genender stating the following:

After receiving your promise of my final payment being directly deposited into my bank account today, I used funds I had available for purchases that could and would have been delayed if I had not relied on your promised payment.
Not only was your promise of payment unequivocal, the form of payment promised (direct deposit to my bank account) assured me my bank would allow me full availability and use of these funds immediately on receipt!
As such, I need the payment of all funds outlined in the attachment to your initial email on March 17, 2017 direct deposited into my account today as promised. Otherwise, I will not have the funds to meet . . . my family's needs.

ECF No. 19-3, at 7. She states in her affidavit that she “had made purchases and other financial commitments to [her] family that [she] would not have promised (band camp; medical needs of daughter; miscellaneous expenses for son entering college; advance mortgage payment) all of which [she] would not be able to cover without the severance pay promised.” Id. ¶ 48.

         On March 27, 2017, Ms. Blackwood received the severance agreement, which she ultimately refused to sign inasmuch as she asserts that a provision of the agreement would have prevented her “from working in [her] field in the State of West Virginia” and was therefore unconscionable. Id. ¶¶ 49-51. Ms. Blackwood never received any severance pay. She asserts that she expected to “be paid severance based on [her] experience in having worked for other consulting firms” and that “these firms have always paid severance to terminated professional employees . . . . [as] it is the norm for this type of employment.” Id. ¶ 42.

         The court notes that inasmuch as the parties have not exchanged discovery in this matter, the plaintiff submitted, with her response in opposition to defendant's motion for summary judgment, an affidavit containing the text of several of the emails noted above. These same emails have been attached to previous briefings by the plaintiff and/or described in the ...


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