Promissory Estoppel Is Alive and Well In Delaware Employment Law

In a reminder to Delaware employers that what you say can come back to bite you, the Delaware Supreme Court reinstated a Superior Court jury verdict in favor of a plaintiff, after the trial court had determined that his claim failed as a matter of law. The plaintiff, Donald Harmon, had been the Presiding Judge of the Delaware Harness Racing Commission, and was fired as a result of an allegation that he had changed a judging sheet for a race, as a favor to the horse’s owner. Harmon was charged with crimes and was suspended without pay pending the outcome of the criminal case.

He asked another employee to find out from the Racing Commission whether he would be reinstated if he was acquitted on the criminal charges. The employee testified that he put that question to the Commissioners and they “looked at each other and then said [Harmon] would be reinstated.” The Commission later decided not to reinstate Harmon and he sued, obtaining an award of $102,273 after a 5 day jury trial. The trial court overturned the verdict and Harmon appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court.

In essence, promissory estoppel in the employment context means that the employer has made a representation to an employee that the employee reasonably relied on to his or her detriment. While that theory can apply to private employers, the general rule in the public sector, as asserted by the Racing Commission in this case, is that “the state is not estopped in the exercise of its governmental functions by the acts of its officers.”

Relying on two rather hoary school-district cases, the Delaware Supreme Court recognized that there is “an exception to the general rule in the employment context.” In, Keating v. Bd. of Educ. of the Appoquinimink Sch. Dist., and Crisco v. Bd. of Educ. of the Indian River Sch. Dist., the court rejected the claim that promissory estoppel does not apply to a “creature of the State.”

The Takeaway

What is striking about all three cases is the casual manner in which the employers’ representatives acted. If a clear, written statement had existed in Keating that it was only the decision of the Board that determined who would be rehired, and in Crisco that persons with standard certificates would have preference under the RIF policy, and if the Racing Commission had, instead of “looking at each other,” made it clear that it was not committing to rehiring Harmon without a more formal investigation, the outcome almost surely would have been different.

Harmon v. State of Delaware, (PDF), No 676, 2011 (Del. Feb. 15, 2013).

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