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Arnold v. Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, LLC

Supreme Court of Alabama

July 12, 2019

Keith Michael Arnold
v.
Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, LLC Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, LLC
v.
Keith Michael Arnold

          Appeals from Montgomery Circuit Court (CV-16-900153)

          MITCHELL, JUSTICE.

         This dispute centers on whether Keith Michael Arnold must reimburse his former employer, Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, LLC ("HMMA"), for expenses HMMA incurred in moving Arnold from Kentucky to Alabama to begin employment at HMMA's manufacturing facility in Montgomery. When he started his employment, Arnold signed an agreement obligating him to reimburse HMMA for his relocation expenses if he voluntarily left his employment with HMMA within 24 months. Just 16 months after beginning his employment, Arnold resigned his position with HMMA. After Arnold refused to reimburse HMMA for the relocation expenses it had paid on his behalf, HMMA sued him in the Montgomery Circuit Court, asserting a breach-of-contract claim. HMMA obtained a summary judgment against Arnold for $67, 534 in damages, but the trial court denied HMMA's request for prejudgment interest, attorney fees, and expenses.

         Arnold appeals the summary judgment in favor of HMMA. HMMA cross-appeals and argues that, under the terms of the reimbursement agreement, it was entitled to $11, 710 for prejudgment interest and $20, 293 for attorney fees and expenses. We affirm the summary judgment entered by the trial court to the extent it held that Arnold was liable for breach of contract and awarded HMMA $67, 534. Because HMMA has established that it had a contractual right to additional sums beyond the $67, 534 awarded by the trial court, we reverse that portion of the judgment denying HMMA's request for those additional sums and remand the cause for the trial court to enter a final judgment in favor of HMMA for $99, 537, an amount that fully compensates HMMA under the reimbursement agreement.

         Facts and Procedural History

         In late 2012, a third-party recruiter approached Arnold, who had approximately 15 years of experience working in the automotive industry, to gauge his interest in a possible job with HMMA. At the time, Arnold was working at a manufacturing facility in Kentucky, but Arnold previously had a favorable experience working for Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia, a sister company of HMMA, and was interested in returning to the automotive industry. Arnold decided to pursue the opportunity with HMMA, and, in January 2013, he was offered a position as a manager in HMMA's production-control department.

         As part of the offer made to Arnold, HMMA agreed to pay certain expenses associated with his relocation from Kentucky to Alabama. Those expenses included not only Arnold's actual moving costs, but also a general relocation allowance, the cost of Arnold's temporary housing in Montgomery, expenses for travel and house hunting, and other incidental costs. Arnold accepted HMMA's offer of employment, and HMMA ultimately expended a total of $67, 534 in connection with Arnold's relocation.[1] Arnold began work for HMMA on March 11, 2013.

         On March 13, 2013, Arnold executed HMMA's standard relocation-reimbursement agreement, which provides, in pertinent part:

"[Arnold] understands and agrees that if [he] voluntarily terminates his ... employment with HMMA ... within the first twenty-four (24) months of [his] start date, then [he] shall reimburse HMMA for all relocation costs paid by HMMA on behalf of [him] pursuant to the relocation policy, plus a gross up amount for taxes as determined by HMMA. [Arnold] hereby gives HMMA a lien on [his] wages and authorizes HMMA to deduct said relocation expenses from [his] wages. If [Arnold's] wages are insufficient to cover all costs he ... owes to HMMA, [he] shall make payment to HMMA for all relocation expenses within thirty (30) days after the termination of [his] employment with HMMA."

         The agreement also obligated Arnold to pay "all collection costs, charges and expenses incurred by HMMA, including but not limited to all collection agency fees, interest and attorneys' fees" that resulted from Arnold's failure to timely reimburse HMMA any amounts that became due under the agreement.

         Arnold states that, upon beginning his new employment, he had a positive relationship with his coworkers, including his immediate supervisor, Angela James, and her supervisor, Wongyun Park. But the relationship between James and Park began deteriorating, and Arnold was allegedly drawn into the conflict and also began having problems with Park. Arnold states that Park began bypassing James and communicating directly with Arnold and that, during their interactions, Park was often angry and aggressive, frequently berating and humiliating him in front of other employees. According to Arnold, Park continually criticized him for matters that were outside Arnold's control, and Park repeatedly tried to force him to take actions that were contrary to HMMA policy. Arnold specifically alleges that Park asked him: (1) to falsify the repair orders for forklifts so that the forklifts might qualify for warranty service; (2) to hire fewer women into the production-control department; and (3) to install cameras in certain areas of the HMMA facility without obtaining approval from HMMA's legal department. Arnold states that his refusal to take these actions further angered Park.

         On February 20, 2014, Arnold filed a complaint with HMMA's human-resources department about the way Park treated him and the hostile work environment Arnold alleged existed in the production-control department because of Park's behavior. Arnold explained in the complaint that the conflict with Park was impacting his health and that he could not "continue to be expected to take verbal abuse and unrealistic requests on an ongoing basis." Arnold states that HMMA's legal department subsequently conducted an investigation but that he was unsure of the ultimate findings of the investigation.

         Arnold states that, after he filed his complaint with human resources, Park's treatment of him became even worse. Arnold claims that Park continually required him to spend much of his shift observing in "the weld shop," after which he would have to return to his desk and complete his regularly assigned work duties. Arnold states that he had to work 24- hour days on multiple occasions as a result of the extra assignments Park gave him and that Park told him that Korean managers often worked 24 hours a day. Arnold further asserts that the other managers had a running joke that his assignment to the weld shop was punishment from Park and that he was humiliated by the assignment and the jokes. Eventually, Arnold concluded that he could not continue working at HMMA, and, on June 30, 2014, he submitted a resignation letter to James, stating, in relevant part:

"This letter is to inform you that I will be resigning my position as materials manager with HMMA effective July 11, 2014. ... My decision to leave is based on a work environment that continues to be retaliatory in nature and has negatively affected my health as well as the significant imbalance between work and life. This was not an easy decision, yet one that is necessary. It is apparent that the organization is displeased with my performance and I as well have been displeased with the treatment and often demeaning behavior directed towards me. My expectations are that HMMA can mutually agree to a separation without further repercussions both professionally and legally by either party."

         Before leaving HMMA, Arnold had an exit interview with Scott Gordy, a manager in HMMA's human-resources department. The meeting lasted approximately 30-40 minutes, and, during the meeting, Arnold told Gordy that he felt like HMMA was forcing him out and retaliating against him for making the complaint about Park's behavior. Arnold states that he also reiterated to Gordy what he wrote in his resignation letter -- that he expected there to be a mutual separation without any further professional or legal repercussions. Arnold asserts that, in response, Gordy "nodded his head and told me, 'Sorry things ended up the way they did,' and wished me the best of luck, shook my hand, and I walked out the door." It is undisputed that HMMA thereafter paid Arnold all the funds to which he was entitled, including his salary and employer retirement contributions for the days he worked, a payout for his accrued vacation days, and reimbursement for certain job-related expenses he had incurred.

         Arnold left HMMA in July 2014 and apparently had no further contact with his former employer until March 2015, when he received a letter from HMMA stating that he owed HMMA $67, 534 under the terms of the reimbursement agreement. Arnold responded with a letter denying that he owed HMMA any reimbursement and requesting that HMMA withdraw its demand. It is not clear from the record if there were any other communications between the parties, but, in any event, Arnold refused to make any reimbursement to HMMA. On February 4, 2016, HMMA sued Arnold alleging breach of contract. Arnold filed an answer denying that he owed HMMA any money and asserting a breach-of-contract counterclaim.[2] On December 5, 2017, HMMA moved for a summary judgment on the claims asserted by both parties and an award of $67, 534 on its breach-of-contract claim, with an additional amount to be determined for interest, attorney fees, and expenses. HMMA supported its summary-judgment motion with, among other things, a copy of the reimbursement agreement executed by Arnold, a copy of Arnold's resignation letter, excerpts from Arnold's deposition, and an affidavit from Gordy detailing the $67, 534 that HMMA claimed Arnold owed.

         In his response to HMMA's summary-judgment motion, Arnold claimed that he had not breached the terms of the reimbursement agreement because, he said, he had not voluntarily terminated his employment but had instead been forced to resign. In addition, Arnold alleged that he and Gordy had agreed at his exit interview that neither he nor HMMA would take any legal action against the other. The trial court conducted a hearing on HMMA's summary-judgment motion and, on February 21, 2018, entered a summary judgment in favor of HMMA and against Arnold, awarding HMMA $67, 534. The trial court also dismissed Arnold's counterclaims.

         On February 27, 2018, HMMA filed a postjudgment motion asking the trial court to amend the summary-judgment order and to award it an additional $11, 710 for prejudgment interest, as well as $20, 293 for attorney fees and expenses, all of which it asserted the reimbursement agreement obligated Arnold to pay. HMMA noted that it had requested such an award in its summary-judgment motion but that it had been unable to state at that time the exact sum being claimed because the case was ongoing and interest and attorney fees continued to accrue. HMMA supported its request with an affidavit from its attorney detailing the claimed attorney fees and expenses.

         On March 9, 2018, Arnold filed his own postjudgment motion asking the trial court to vacate the summary judgment entered in favor of HMMA and to deny HMMA's postjudgment motion. On June 14, 2018, the trial court purported to enter an amended summary-judgment order awarding HMMA a total of $99, 537 -- $67, 534 on its breach-of-contract claim, $11, 710 for prejudgment interest, and $20, 293 for attorney fees and expenses. But under Rule 59.1, Ala. R. Civ. P., both HMMA's and Arnold's postjudgment motions had already been denied by operation of law because the trial court had not ruled on them within 90 days of their filing. The trial court's amended order was therefore void. See, e.g., Ex parte Jackson Hosp. & Clinic, Inc., 49 So.3d 1210, 1212 (Ala. 2010) ("The trial court's order was void because it lost jurisdiction after the running of the 90-day period prescribed by Rule 59.1."). On July 18, 2018, ...


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