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Appeals court split on parol evidence issue

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Judges on the Indiana Court of Appeals were split on whether a boss's oral promise to a future employee regarding a severance package would be barred from consideration by the parol evidence rule.

In Mark Hinkel v. Sataria Distribution & Packaging Inc., No. 49A04-0908-CV-473, Judges Nancy Vaidik and Patricia Riley ruled any alleged promises John Jacobs from Sataria made to potential employee Mark Hinkel regarding severance and salary are barred from consideration by the parol evidence rule.

Hinkel worked for a different company when Jacobs approached him about working for Sataria. Hinkel claimed Jacobs promised him in a job offer one year's salary and insurance coverage if Hinkel ever lost his job with Sataria for any reason except if Hinkel quit. Jacobs sent a letter to Hinkel outlining the terms of the employment, but the letter didn't mention the oral agreement, nor did it specify paid vacation time.

Hinkel signed the letter and worked for the company for a little over a year until Sataria terminated his employment. Hinkel sued for breach of contract and/or promissory estoppel, claiming the company owed him the severance package Jacobs promised instead of the six weeks he received. The trial court granted summary judgment for Sataria.

Under the parol evidence rule, the majority found Hinkel's contract represented a complete integration of the parties' employment agreement. Since a lucrative severance provision would normally be included in an employment contract, the omission of it supported the conclusion Hinkel's written contract superseded any prior oral promises, wrote Judge Vaidik. In addition, the majority held that Jacobs' alleged oral promises after Hinkel signed the employment agreement don't constitute a valid contract modification because they weren't supported by an independent, bargained-for exchange.

Judge Terry Crone dissented on the issue of parol evidence because he believed a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether the parties intended for Jacobs' written job offer to be completely integrated. The one-page written agreement doesn't contain an integration clause. Judge Crone also found telling the fact the vacation terms were yet to be determined, which he interpreted as meaning the parties hadn't reached an agreement on the issue and the offer is more like a memorandum of understanding.

Also, he believed the terms of the severance package didn't vary from or contradict the terms of the written offer, but merely covered that which wasn't covered in the offer. As such, even assuming that the offer is completely integrated, the terms of the severance package would not be barred by the parol evidence rule, he wrote.

The majority also addressed Hinkel's claim for promissory estoppel and found he failed to show an injury "so independent and severe that injustice could only be avoided by enforcement of Jacobs' alleged promise," wrote Judge Vaidik.

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