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Peters v. Deseret Cattle Feeders, LLC

Supreme Court of Kansas

March 29, 2019

Douglas R. Peters, Appellant,
v.
Deseret Cattle Feeders, LLC, Appellee.

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. The law in Kansas generally favors employment at will, but it also recognizes implied-in-fact employment contracts in certain circumstances. For under Kansas law, parties may become contractually obligated by their conduct as well as by their use of oral or written words.

         2. Evidence of an implied-in-fact contract shows a mutual intent to contract. So an implied contract cannot be established solely by the employee's subjective understanding or expectation of his or her continued employment.

         3. The intent of contracting parties is normally a question of fact for the jury, and the determination of whether there is an implied-in-fact employment contract requires a factual inquiry.

         4. In deciding whether summary judgment is appropriate, a court must determine whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.

         5. Promissory estoppel is an equitable doctrine designed to promote some measure of basic fairness when one party makes a representation or promise in a manner reasonably inducing another party to undertake some obligation or to incur some detriment as a result.

         Review of the judgment of the Court of Appeals in an unpublished opinion filed August 26, 2016.

          Appeal from Haskell District Court; Bradley E. Ambrosier, judge.

          John M. Lindner, of Lindner, Marquez & Koksal, of Garden City, argued the cause and was on the briefs for appellant.

          Alan L. Rupe, of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, of Wichita, argued the cause, and Jeremy K. Schrag, of the same firm, was with him on the briefs for appellee.

          OPINION

          NUSS, C.J.

         This is an employment case arising out of the sale of a cattle feedlot. The district court held that Douglas R. Peters, who moved his employment from the old owner to the new-Deseret Cattle Feeders, LLC (Deseret)-was Deseret's employee at will. In short, Deseret could terminate Peters' employment at any time without cause. So the court granted summary judgment to Deseret on Peters' claims of breach of implied-in-fact employment contract and promissory estoppel.

         The Court of Appeals panel reversed, holding that whether Peters' employment was at will-or protected by an implied-in-fact contract-was a disputed question of fact precluding summary judgment.

         Where, as here, no definite term of employment is expressed, the duration of employment depends on the intention of the parties as determined by the circumstances of each particular case. Johnson v. National Beef Packing Co., 220 Kan. 52, 54-55, 551 P.2d 779 (1976). Under the circumstances of this particular case, we agree with the panel. As required by caselaw, Peters' implied-in-fact employment contract claim is supported by more than his own subjective understanding or expectation. And whether a meeting of the minds existed between Peters and Deseret on such a contract presents a genuine issue of material fact preventing summary judgment.

         As a result, we affirm the panel's decision reversing summary judgment on this claim and the one for promissory estoppel. We remand to the district court for further proceedings.

         Facts and Procedural History

         Hitch Enterprises, Incorporated (Hitch) owned and operated a Haskell County feedlot licensed to feed more than 47, 000 head of cattle. As Hitch's shop manager, Peters was responsible for supervising two to three individuals in the shop and for keeping all of the equipment running. When Peters began working for Hitch in 2006, he signed a statement acknowledging he was an employee at will.

         In 2010, Hitch sold the enterprise to Deseret. While Hitch custom fed cattle for a variety of different owners, Deseret exclusively feeds cattle coming from the 10 ranches operated by its parent company AgReserves, Inc.

         In May or early June 2010, Hitch called a company meeting and told its employees it was selling its feedlot to Deseret. No Deseret representatives attended the meeting. There, Hitch representatives told their employees they were welcome to look into transferring to other Hitch locations-two feedlots near Guymon, Oklahoma-if they were unable to work for Deseret.

         According to the later deposition testimony of Hitch employee Lew Branscum, Hitch also told its employees the sales agreement provided there would be no layoffs and if the former Hitch employees did their jobs after Deseret took over, Deseret would keep them. Any reduction in workforce would be through attrition from retirements and voluntary resignations.

         Two Hitch managers, Ronnie Pruitt and Dale Nicodemus, were not retained. During their depositions, they testified that Deseret warned them against enticing any current Hitch employees to go with them. In sum, Deseret needed the employees to keep operating the feedlot.

         In June 2010, Deseret representatives held meetings to introduce themselves to the Hitch employees. David Secrist, Vice President of Cattle for AgReserves, Inc., and Michael Archibald, General Manager for Deseret (who eventually replaced Pruitt), met with groups of Hitch employees from each of the departments, i.e., shop and yard, feed and mill, and animal health. At the time of these meetings, Deseret was unfamiliar with Hitch's individual employees and their experience levels, work history, disciplinary history, attendance, or productivity levels. Secrist and ...


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