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Pelt v. Bona-Dent, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

May 16, 2018

TAD VAN PELT, Plaintiff,
BONA-DENT, INC., a New York corporation d/b/a BONADENT DENTAL LABORATORIES; BRUCE BONAFIGLIA, Individually; BRUCE HENRY PROPERTIES, LLC, a New York limited liability company d/b/a BONADENT DENTAL LABORATORIES, Defendants.


          John Z. Lee United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Tad Van Pelt worked as a National Sales Representative for BonaDent, Inc., a dental laboratory. Van Pelt has sued BonaDent for breach of contract, fraudulent inducement, retaliatory discharge, violations of the Illinois Whistleblower Act, post-termination retaliation, and common law defamation. Defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“Rule”) 12(b)(6). For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion to dismiss is granted in part and denied in part.

         Factual Background

         The following facts are alleged by Van Pelt and presumed true for the purposes of the motion to dismiss. See Manistee Apartments, LLC v. City of Chi., 844 F.3d 630, 633 (7th Cir. 2016).

         The relationship between Van Pelt and BonaDent began when BonaDent contacted Van Pelt and offered him a sales job. 2d Am. Compl. ¶ 9, ECF No. 32. When Van Pelt rejected the officer, BonaDent's Chief Executive Officer, Bruce Bonafiglia, then told Van Pelt that BonaDent would create a role for him as National Sales Director. Id. ¶ 9.

         Bonafiglia and Van Pelt met on several occasions to discuss the position, including the salary and work environment. Id. According to Van Pelt, during these conversations, Bonafiglia concealed the fact that, within the previous twelve months, he had fired two other employees who had served in the National Sales Director position. Id. ¶ 11. Bonafiglia withheld this information despite the fact that Van Pelt told him that Van Pelt already had a great job and would only accept the offer if the position at BonaDent was in his and his family's best interest. Id. ¶ 16. Along these lines, during their discussions, Bonafiglia stated that Van Pelt would be have the position for a long time. Id. ¶ 13.

         Bonafiglia eventually offered Van Pelt the position. Id. ¶¶ 9-10. After discussing the opportunity with his wife, Van Pelt accepted the offer. Id. ¶¶ 11, 14. Van Pelt acknowledged the employment relationship by signing a letter on November 16, 2015, that provided details about the job description and compensation plan. Id. ¶ 14. His yearly salary was $140, 000.00. Id., Ex. 3, 6/28/17 Employment Verification, ECF No. 32-3, at p. 2.

         Van Pelt began working for BonaDent on November 30, 2015. Id. ¶ 15. As National Sales Director, he supervised employees, constructed a sales marketing plan, travelled, and attended meetings. Id.

         In December 2015, BonaDent purchased a laboratory in Chicago, and Van Pelt was instructed to have a desk at the lab in order to supervise the operations. Id. ¶¶ 20-21. In addition to his other duties, Van Pelt also was asked to perform human resources responsibilities at the lab. Id. ¶ 22. During the course of fulfilling his responsibilities at the lab, Van Pelt came to believe that some of the lab workers lacked the proper documentation to work in the United States. Id. He expressed his concern to Bonafiglia, who told him that one of the workers was in the process of obtaining citizenship by marrying a United States citizen and that Van Pelt should continue his role at the lab. Id.; id. ¶ 23. Van Pelt continued to work at the lab and perform his assigned duties, but he refused to fulfill his human resources role with regard to those employees who he believed were working illegally. Id.

         On one occasion, Van Pelt smelled the odor of gas at the lab, informed other employees that there must be a gas leak in the area, and left to work offsite because he felt uncomfortable working at the lab. Id. ¶ 24. Bonafiglia reprimanded Van Pelt and stated that he had showed poor leadership by leaving the lab and his fellow employees. Id. ¶ 25.

         After working for BonaDent for sixty days, Van Pelt received a performance review on February 9, 2016. Id. ¶ 27. The written review, which is attached as an exhibit to the second amended complaint, has been redacted to the point of being practically illegible. See id., Ex., BonaDent 60 Day Review, ECF No. 32-2 at pp. 38-39. To the extent that it can be read, the review states that Van Pelt was still developing and learning about the BonaDent culture and work environment. Id. at p. 38. The portion addressing “areas needing development” is redacted. Id. at p. 39. One sentence out of three paragraphs of the “overall evaluation” portion of the review is legible and states: “The team remains confident that Tad is going to be a good fit for the position of National Sales Director.” Id.

         Ten days later, during a telephone call between Bonafiglia and Van Pelt on February 19, 2016, Van Pelt brought up the gas odor incident and told Bonafiglia that he felt that he was being put in the awkward position of having to justify why he had left a work environment that he believed was unsafe. Id. ¶ 28. Van Pelt alleges that he told Bonafiglia that he would not work in an unsafe environment. Id. Van Pelt also alleges that, during the conversation, he iterated his concerns about the presence of illegal workers and refused Bonafiglia's request to be involved in any documentation of them. Id. According to Van Pelt, Bonafiglia terminated his employment, told him that he would be hearing from human resources, and abruptly hung up the phone. Id. On February 19, 2016, Van Pelt received a termination letter from Jenna Crandall, BonaDent's Director of Human Resources, stating that he had been terminated effective February 16, 2016. Id., Ex., 2/19/16 Termination Letter, ECF No. 32-2 at p. 40.

         In an employment verification form dated October 3, 2016, BonaDent's Human Resource Coordinator, Michelle Grillone, stated to an employment verification company that Van Pelt was eligible for rehire, and she made no mention of any attendance issues. Id., Ex. 2, 10/3/16 HireRight Employment Verification Form, ECF No. 32-2, at p. 43. Van Pelt alleges that subsequently, however, BonaDent's Payroll Administrator, Autumn Jennex, made a false statement about him to an employment verification company that caused harm to his reputation and career. Id. ¶ 75; id., Ex. 3, 6/28/17 Employment Verification, ECF No. 32-3, at p. 2. Although Jennex rated Van Pelt's attendance as “Satisfactory”, she also stated on the same form that he was “not eligible for rehire due to attendance issues.” Id.

         Legal Standard

         A motion under Rule 12(b)(6) challenges the sufficiency of the plaintiff's complaint. Christensen v. Cty. of Boone, 483 F.3d 454, 457 (7th Cir. 2007). The federal notice pleading standard requires a complaint to “contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2009)). A complaint must provide only “enough detail to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests, and, through his allegations, show that it is plausible, rather than merely speculative, that he is entitled to relief.” Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1083 (7th Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         In evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint are accepted as true, and courts must draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Cole v. Milwaukee Area Tech. Coll. Dist., 634 F.3d 901, 903 (7th Cir. 2011); Justice v. Town of Cicero, 577 F.3d 768, 771 (7th Cir. 2009). In a motion to dismiss, a complaint's factual allegations may be supplemented by “documents that are attached to the complaint, ” as well as “documents that are central to the complaint and are referred to in it.” Williamson v. Curran, 714 F.3d 432, 436 (7th Cir. 2013); Geinosky v. City of Chi., 675 F.3d 743, 745 n.1 (7th Cir. 2012); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(c). In a diversity case governed by Illinois law, a court must “ascertain the substantive content of state law as it either has been determined by the highest court of the state or as it would be by that court if the present case were before it now.” Allstate Ins. Co. v. Menards, Inc., 285 F.3d 630, 637 (7th Cir. 2002).

         I. Breach of Contract

         In Count I, Van Pelt alleges that he had an oral employment contract for an unspecified duration with BonaDent and that BonaDent breached the contract by terminating him. BonaDent argues that Van Pelt has failed to allege the formation of an oral contract for a particular duration, and the Court agrees.

         Illinois law presumes that employment is at-will where the employee is hired without a fixed term. Duldulao v. St. Mary of Nazareth Hosp. Ctr., 505 N.E.2d 314, 318 (Ill. 1987). Absent a contract to the contrary, either the employee or the employer may terminate the relationship at any time, for any reason or no reason. Harris v. Eckersall, 771 N.E.2d 1072, 1075 (2002). Accordingly, an employee bears the burden of overcoming the presumption of at- will employment by showing that the parties contracted otherwise. Kiddy-Brown v. Blagojevich, 408 F.3d 346, 363 (7th Cir. 2005). And generally speaking, “oral employment contracts . . . are viewed with more skepticism than their formal, written counterparts.” Tolmie v. United Parcel Serv., 930 F.2d 579, 581 (7th Cir. 1991).

         “Under Illinois law, oral employment contracts must satisfy the traditional requirements of contract formation. See McInerney v. Charter Golf, Inc., 680 N.E.2d 1347, 1349 (Ill. 1997) (citing Duldulao, 505 N.E.2d at 318). When an “alleged contract is based upon oral assurances, the plaintiff must establish that the offer was ‘clear and definite' and supported by adequate consideration.” Taylor v. Canteen Corp., 69 F.3d 773, 782 (7th Cir. 1995) (quoting Kercher v. Forms Corp. of Am., Inc., 630 N.E.2d 978, 981 (Ill.App.Ct. 1994)). An offer's terms are clear and definite “as long as ‘an employee would ...

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