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Howick v. Salt Lake City Corp.

Supreme Court of Utah

May 25, 2018

Jodi Howick, Appellant,
v.
Salt Lake City Corporation, Appellee.

         On Direct Appeal

          Third District, Salt Lake The Honorable Richard D. McKelvie No. 090913336

          Erik Strindberg, Salt Lake City, for appellant.

          W. Mark Gavre, Adam E. Weinacker, Salt Lake City, for appellee.

          Chief Justice Durrant authored the opinion of the Court, in which Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Himonas, Justice Pearce, and Judge DiReda joined.

          Due to her retirement, Justice Durham did not participate herein; District Court Judge Michael D. DiReda sat.

          Justice Petersen became a member of the Court on November 17, 2017, after oral argument in this matter and accordingly did not participate.

          OPINION

          DURRANT CHIEF JUSTICE.

         Introduction

         ¶ 1 In this case, the district court ruled that Jodi Howick, a municipal employee, had forfeited her merit protection status through contract, waiver, and estoppel. Ms. Howick argues on appeal, along with other claims, that our precedent allowing a contract in conflict with a statute to survive, provided it does not violate public policy, does not extend to contracts involving government employees. This is an important and difficult question, but it is one we cannot reach here. We affirm without reaching the merits of Ms. Howick's claims because she fails to carry her burden of challenging all of the district court's rulings-each of which was an independent basis for summary judgment.

         Background

         ¶ 2 Jodi Howick was employed by Salt Lake City as an attorney. For the first six years that she worked for the City, she enjoyed merit employee status. In 1998, she accepted a promotion that came with a significant raise, but the City required Ms. Howick to sign a disclaimer stating that "I understand that, if I am appointed by the Salt Lake City Attorney to the 'Appointed Senior City Attorney' position, my employment will be at-will and will be for no fixed length of time." Ms. Howick accepted the position at the beginning of July 1998, but she did not sign the disclaimer until later that month.

         ¶ 3 When Ms. Howick's employment was terminated in 2007, she attempted to appeal the termination to the City's employee review board, arguing that she was entitled to merit status protections, but was told the board lacked jurisdiction over at-will employees. She then initiated this declaratory action in the district court to determine whether she was a merit or an at-will employee.

         ¶ 4 The district court concluded that she was a merit employee. The City appealed the district court's ruling to the Utah Court of Appeals, which agreed that she was a merit employee, but held that her merit status was subject to forfeiture through contract, waiver, or estoppel.[1] The court of appeals remanded the case to the district court for factual findings as to whether Ms. Howick had, in fact, forfeited her merit status.[2] On remand, the district court concluded on summary judgment that "contractually, [she] was an at-will employee at the time of her termination, " that she was "equitably estopped from claiming she was a merit employee at the time of her termination, " and that she "undoubtedly knew of her rights [as a merit employee] and chose to waive them." Ms. Howick filed a timely appeal.

         Standard of Review

         ¶ 5 Ms. Howick contends that the district court incorrectly held that she was contractually an at-will employee. But she fails to address the court's ruling that, at the time the City terminated her employment, she was equitably estopped from claiming merit employment. "An appellate court reviews a trial court's 'legal conclusions and ultimate grant or denial of summary judgment' for correctness and views 'the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.'"[3] But we "will not reverse a ...


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