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Bartel v. NBC Universal

September 11, 2008


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 07 C 2925-John W. Darrah, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wood, Circuit Judge

ARGUED MAY 28, 2008

Before EASTERBROOK, Chief Judge, and RIPPLE and WOOD, Circuit Judges.

Marsha Bartel lost her job at NBC Universal, Inc., after she complained that the television show for which she was responsible was not adhering to NBC's internal ethical standards. NBC first turned a deaf ear to her complaints; Bartel then refused to continue acting as producer for the show; and finally Bartel found herself out the door. She sued NBC in federal court, relying on diversity jurisdiction, for breach of contract. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim, and we affirm.


The account of the facts that follows accepts Bartel's account as true, since this is an appeal from a dismissal under FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). Moranski v. GMC, 433 F.3d 537, 539 (7th Cir. 2005). If she has not stated a claim even under this favorable approach, then it was correct to terminate the litigation at its outset.

Bartel worked as a journalist for NBC Universal, Inc., for 21 years. She won awards for her work and was regarded as one of the best investigative journalists on the NBC news team. In August 2006, NBC assigned Bartel to be the sole producer of a segment entitled "To Catch a Predator," which was part of NBC's Dateline television program. NBC worked with an organization called "Perverted Justice," which uses agents pretending to be minors to lure adult men into chat rooms. The parties make a date to meet, and the men are led to believe they are arranging a sexual assignation with a minor. When the man arrives at the meeting place, he is arrested, while the confrontation scene is filmed. The sequence is later televised on the Predator segment of Dateline.

As a journalist and producer for NBC, one of Bartel's main responsibilities was to ensure compliance with the ethical standards of journalism and NBC's internal guide-lines. Bartel found numerous aspects of the Predator segment production to be in violation of these standards and guidelines. She believed, for example, that NBC was providing compensation directly or indirectly to the law enforcement officers participating in the stings. She thought it wrong that "Perverted Justice" representatives did not provide NBC with compete transcripts of their conversations with the targets, and that they did not identify all of their volunteers to NBC. She also objected that Dateline and Perverted Justice were staging the arrests in a way that maximized the humiliation of the target. Bartel informed her superiors at NBC of these problems, but they took no steps to cure them. Bartel then told her supervisors that she could not produce the segment. On November 17, 2006, NBC informed Bartel that her contract would be terminated effective December 25, 2006. NBC asserted that this action was part of a program of lay-offs that it was making because of general economic conditions.

Bartel did not believe this explanation, and so she sued NBC for breach of contract. She asserted that the termination was premature in light of the protection her contract afforded her. In addition, she charged that the reason given for her termination was pretextual; that the real reason was her refusal to produce a segment that violated ethical and company standards; and that her contract included an implicit restriction against firing her for this kind of reason, thus rendering NBC's action a breach of contract.

NBC moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. It argued that the contract Bartel attached to the complaint was unambiguous and allowed it to end Bartel's employment when and why it did. The contract, NBC went on, contained no restrictions on allowable reasons for dismissal. NBC also argued that New York law, which both parties agree governs this case, does not allow courts to recognize the implicit restriction for which Bartel was arguing. The district court granted NBC's motion to dismiss, and Bartel appeals.


We give de novo review to a district court's dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Moranski, 433 F.3d at 539. The question whether the language of a contract is ambiguous is one of law, and so we also review that de novo. Palmieri v. Allstate Ins. Co., 445 F.3d 179, 187 (2d Cir. 2006).

Bartel first argues that NBC was not permitted under the contract to end her employment when it did. In support of this position, she sought to introduce extrinsic evidence about the parties' understanding of the contractual arrangements, but the district court held that the language of the contract was unambiguous and therefore denied her request.

The provision that directly addresses the time at which NBC was entitled to terminate Bartel's employment is Paragraph 4(a) of the ...

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