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Doyle v. Holy Cross Hospital

February 19, 1999

MARY DOYLE ET AL., APPELLEES, V. HOLY CROSS HOSPITAL, APPELLANT.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Miller

Agenda 20-September 1998.

In Duldulao v. St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital Center, 115 Ill. 2d 482 (1987), this court held that provisions in an employee handbook may give rise to a binding contract with at-will employees who accept the terms of the contract by commencing or continuing their employment with the employer. The present appeal involves a related issue and concerns the question whether the terms of the contract so formed may be altered unilaterally by the employer to an employee's disadvantage and in the absence of a reservation of the right by the employer to make unilateral changes. The plaintiffs brought the present action in the circuit court of Cook County, alleging in their amended complaint that the defendant terminated their employment in violation of the provisions of the defendant's employee handbook; the plaintiffs sought recovery under theories of breach of contract and promissory estoppel. The circuit court of Cook County granted the defendant's motion to dismiss the amended complaint. The appellate court reversed, finding a cause of action. 289 Ill. App. 3d 75. We allowed the defendant's petition for leave to appeal (166 Ill. 2d R. 315(a)), and we now affirm the judgment of the appellate court.

The plaintiffs in this case were nurses employed by the defendant, Holy Cross Hospital, in Chicago. The plaintiffs worked for the defendant continuously until they were discharged, effective November 1, 1991. The defendant hired Mary Doyle in 1960, Leni Serra in 1968, and Susan Valderrama and Valerie Zorek in 1972. In 1971, the defendant issued to existing employees and new hires an employee handbook, which contained a number of policies and provisions regarding employment with the defendant. One of the policies pertained to discharge, and it is the subject of the present appeal. According to the plaintiffs' amended complaint, policy number 7-G, "Economic Separation," stated:

"Holy Cross Hospital is committed to providing a working environment where employees feel secure in their job. We understand that job security is important to an employee and to that employee's family. There are instances, though, that for economic or other reasons it becomes apparent that the permanent elimination of departments, job classifications, and/or jobs must be made, and there is no reasonable expectation that employees affected could be placed in other positions in the hospital or be recalled for work in one year or less. To ensure that the economic separation is handled in an objective, structured, and consistent way, the following policies will be followed in determining which employees will be affected.

1. Job Classification

2. Length of Continuous Hospital Service

3. Ability and Fitness to Perform the Required Work.

Because of the special needs of our patients, the following factors will be used in an economic separation affecting R.N.'s:

1. Nursing Areas of Expertise

2. Length of Service Within Each Area of Expertise

3. Ability and Fitness to Perform the Required Work

Employees affected by an economic separation will be placed on a priority rehire list and will be contacted by the Human Resources Department if a position becomes available for which the separated employees may be eligible through experience, training, education and/or other qualifications. Priority rehire consideration shall be for a period of one year."

The defendant asserts that the 1971 handbook actually contained a different policy regarding terminations, but for purposes of this appeal the defendant assumes that the policy quoted above was the one in force in 1971.

The defendant later added disclaimers to the handbook. In 1983, after all four of the plaintiffs had begun working for the defendant, the defendant promulgated policy 5-I, which provided:

"The Personnel Policies and other various Hospital employee and applicant communications are subject to change from time to time and are not intended to constitute nor do they constitute an implied or express contract or guarantee of employment for any period of time. The employment relationship between the Hospital and any employee may be terminated at any time by the Hospital or the employee with or without notice."

The hospital discharged the four plaintiffs effective November 1, 1991. The plaintiffs commenced the present action on November 9, 1992, by filing a complaint in the circuit court of Cook County. In their complaint they sought recovery under a theory of breach of contract, contending that their discharges were in violation of the economic separation provisions of the 1971 employee handbook. The defendant moved to dismiss the complaint under section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 1992)), and the trial Judge granted the motion. At the same time, the Judge allowed the plaintiffs to amend their complaint. The plaintiffs then filed an amended complaint, realleging the breach of contract theory and adding a theory of promissory estoppel. The amended complaint comprised eight counts; the first four counts sought recovery for each of the individual plaintiffs on a theory of breach of contract, and the second four counts sought recovery for each plaintiff on a theory of promissory estoppel. The defendant again moved for dismissal of the complaint under section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure. Following a hearing, the trial Judge granted the motion with prejudice. The plaintiffs appealed that judgment to the appellate court, which, in an unpublished order, reversed the judgment and remanded the cause, concluding that the dismissal was improper because it was based on matters outside the complaint-the disclaimer in the later handbook.

Following remand, the defendant sought dismissal of the plaintiffs' amended complaint under a different provision of the Code of Civil Procedure, section 2-619(a)(9) (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 1994)). This motion was heard by a different Judge, who granted the requested relief. In dismissing the amended complaint, the Judge relied on the appellate court's opinion in Condon v. American Telephone & Telegraph Co., 210 Ill. App. 3d 701 (1991), which had held that an employer may unilaterally alter the terms of an employee handbook to an employee's disadvantage even though the employer had not previously reserved the right to do so.

The plaintiffs appealed, and the appellate court reversed, concluding that the defendant's modification of the terms of the handbook was not enforceable against the plaintiffs because it was not supported by consideration. 289 Ill. App. 3d at 79-80. In addition, the appellate court rejected the defendant's alternative argument that the terms of the original handbook provision were not sufficiently clear and definite to constitute a promise. 289 Ill. App. 3d at 78-80. We allowed the defendant's petition for leave to appeal. 166 Ill. 2d R. 315(a). We later granted leave to the Illinois Manufacturers' Association and the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association to submit briefs as amici curiae. 155 Ill. 2d R. 345.

The trial court dismissed the amended complaint under section 2-619(a)(9) of Code of Civil Procedure, which permits the dismissal of an action when "the claim asserted *** is barred by other affirmative matter avoiding the legal effect of or defeating the claim." 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 1996). The purpose of a motion to dismiss under section 2-619 is to provide litigants with a method for disposing of issues of law and easily proved issues of fact at the beginning of a case, reserving disputed questions of fact for a trial, if necessary. Zedella v. Gibson, 165 Ill. 2d 181, 185 (1995). The question on appeal from an order granting dismissal under section 2-619 is "whether the existence of a genuine issue of material fact should have ...


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