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Hartford, Conn.-The corporate culture of the Atlanta-based home improvement giant Home Depot Inc., as expressed in employee-orientation manuals, posters and company literature, has a theme of doing the right thing for its employees. Its “open door policy,” in which employees are told they can air a complaint about their boss to higher management without fear of retaliation, is one such progressive workplace mechanism. But according to a federal jury’s verdict rendered in Hartford earlier this month, Home Depot’s firing of plaintiff Bruce Holt in July 1999-days after he complained about his manager-was a breach of the implied promise that arose from the open-door policy itself. Home Depot argued strenuously in a jury trial before U.S. District Judge Robert N. Chatigny that it had every right to fire Holt, with or without cause. But Chatigny, in denying Home Depot’s motion for summary judgment, and the jury, in awarding Holt $467,000 for wrongful termination, concluded that Home Depot and Holt had a legal bargain that Home Depot had to live up to. The fine print in the employment application Holt filled out in 1995 emphasizing that it was not the intent of the company to create an employment contract-only an employment-at-will relationship-didn’t help Home Depot’s case. Holt v. Home Depot, No. 300-CV-1578. Bloomfield battleground Holt was represented by Thomas W. Meiklejohn and Henry F. Murray of Hartford’s Livingston Adler Pulda Meiklejohn & Kelly. Meiklejohn said some Home Depot employees wore “no fear” buttons on the job, reflecting their faith in the no-retaliation promise. “Home Depot argued they had their fingers crossed,” he said after the July 1 verdict. In 1998, Holt was a senior manager working in central New Jersey when his boss urged him to head up a lumber-distribution center opening in Bloomfield, Conn. Holt agreed, and was given a standard relocation package. It did not cover the transfer of two nonoperating cars that Holt was repairing. Holt arranged to have those moved for $495 by West Motor Freight, which is a Home Depot vendor. Holt was told by his supervisor that he would have to pay that bill, and Holt created a unique purchase-order number to flag it for his own attention. In Bloomfield, a new regional supervisor, Melanie Gray, began supervising Holt. She found fault with the lumber-distribution center’s speed and efficiency, and augmented Holt’s staff with several employees of her choice. In Holt’s version of the facts, by June 24, 1999, Gray obtained reports of the center’s progress from other employees and confronted Holt with a list of problems, with ambitious deadlines to correct them. Holt felt Gray was harassing him and micromanaging his operation, and that her fault-finding was based on incomplete information. He warned Gray he might complain to her boss. Following the open-door procedure, he attempted to reach Gray’s supervisor, Drex Crowell, to complain. In Crowell’s absence, Holt was connected to Brian Baker, senior logistics manager, who surprised Holt by conferencing Gray into the call. Holt didn’t want to talk with Gray on the line and hung up. Complaint backfires At this point, it was no secret Holt was complaining about Gray, and he decided to file a formal written complaint about her. He called the company’s toll-free “impact” line to request forms. Home Depot contracts with a company that answers calls from employees nationwide, and compiles a coded report every 24 hours for Herbert Miller, the company’s national director of human resources for its logistics operations. Miller received the report about Holt’s complaint on July 5, 1999. When he traveled to the Bloomfield center the next day, Miller noted that Holt had several vehicles parked at the center, including the nonworking cars, and launched an investigation into Holt’s use of West Motor Freight to transport them. The bill at that point was still unpaid, and Miller concluded that Holt violated the company’s ethics policy by using a company vendor to move his cars. He was fired on July 9, four days after making use of the open-door policy and impact line while under the impression that he was shielded from retaliation. Home Depot officials based the firing on a conflict of interest: using a store vendor for personal transactions. Holt contended that a conflict only arises when an employee is given a discounted rate, which, Holt said, was not done in this case. He sued for a breach of the implied contract not to retaliate, a breach of good faith and fair dealing, negligent infliction of emotional distress, defamation and tortious interference with a business relationship. The Hartford jury, after a six-day trial, found for Holt on promissory grounds, apparently concluding that the Home Depot posters, orientation manuals and company fliers created a promise, and that Holt relied on it to his detriment. Motion filed Home Depot, through its attorney, Robert P. Joy, has filed a 52-page motion to overturn the jury’s verdict, contending that there was no promise and that there were inadequate facts to support the verdict. “We believe the jury verdict was inconsistent,” Joy, of Boston’s Morgan, Brown & Joy, said in a voice-mail message responding to a reporter’s inquiry. “They found for the plaintiff on only one of the original eight counts in the complaint-that was the promissory estoppel count. But interestingly, they found for the defense on the implied-in-fact contract claim, which was the thrust of the case as we went throughout the discovery process through to the trial. “It’s an interesting result, and one that I think is inconsistent internally when one looks at the verdicts on the various counts.” Joy wrote in the motion that Holt, as manager of the Bloomfield center, would have had his employees sign forms that state in boldface type that the handbook is not a contract of any sort. He said Home Depot will appeal the verdict if the motion is denied.

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