Is promissory estoppel actionable without a written contract?

I visited a college with interest in an assistant coaching position within
their athletic department paying a small stipend. While there, I was sought
out by the president and VP telling me to apply for an enrollment position
full time plus benefits.

I was given assurances the job was mine so I started taking on the coaching
duties – without an interview, official offer, etc. I just filled out some
paperwork.

The VP asked me to interview for the enrollment position with other staff
members. At the interview, the VP says to me, ‘you will be my first hire.’ Then
she tells me she’ll call me later in the week with the details.

I assume the job is mine, fly home, sell furniture, pack my family up into a
Uhaul and begin to move. Literally driving the truck, the VP calls me and says
she hired a more qualified person for the enrollment position.

Would I be justified seeking damages or is this stupidity on my part?

Asked on October 27, 2017 under Employment Labor Law, Minnesota

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 3 years ago | Contributor

It's probably--your words, not mine--"stupidity," but more charitably, a triumph of optimism over pragmatism or realism. Promissory estoppel, while still valid in the sense is it sometimes followed, is generally disfavored by the courts, because it creates quasi-contractual liability where there is no contract, and so runs counter to contract law. That makes it generally an uphill battle to win on it. More specifically, in the employment context, because all employment is "employment at will" except when there is a written employment contract, it is not reasonable to rely on any employment promise which is not contained in an actual employment contract. However, one of the requirements of promissory estoppel is that the reliance on the promise must be "reasonable": it very difficult to convince a court that it was reasonable to rely on a noncontractual employment promise and to take such drastic actions as you did without getting a contract protecting you.


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