Fired, arrested Walmart worker loses appeal

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment for Walmart when it found a former employee at its Greencastle store who was fired and arrested for theft after buying deeply discounted tires could not support his claims against the retail giant.

Denny Neff worked as a service writer in the tire and lube express department at the store. In September 2014, Neff and two other Walmart employees removed tires, described by Neff as “outdated and deleted” from the service area and then purchased them at a steeply discounted price. The employees claimed the assistant manager had approved of the discount, which was one-fifth to one-tenth the tires’ retail price. Neff and the two other employees then rang up the transactions for one another at the cash register.

The next day, Neff was arrested on suspicion of theft and terminated from his employment with Walmart after an investigation and interview conducted by Walmart’s asset protection manager. The asset protection manager confirmed that pursuant to the store’s associate purchase policy, Neff had no authority to set the discounted price without prior managerial approval. He then concluded that Neff had intended to commit a theft of the tires. The state declined to press charges against Neff, who in 2015 sued Walmart as well as the city of Greencastle and the Greencastle Police Department, which have been dismissed from the suit.

In September 2017, Walmart moved for summary judgment, which was granted after a December 2017 hearing. Neff was denied his motion to correct error in February 2018.

On appeal, Neff argued a host of claims, including breach of contract and wrongful termination; false arrest, criminal confinement, tortious confinement, trespass against person, and false imprisonment; negligent infliction of emotional distress; intentional infliction of emotional distress; defamation and invasion of privacy.

Neff first contended that he was wrongfully terminated from his Walmart employment. The appellate court found that under Indiana’s doctrine of employment at-will, the evidence clearly established that “Neff himself acknowledged that his employment was for an indefinite duration and was at-will.” Therefore, the court concluded, Neff’s termination did not breach any employment contract.

Neff then argued several claims stemming from his brief detention at Walmart while he was interviewed about the purchased tires. Walmart defended itself by relying on the probable cause provision of the Shoplifting Detention Act.

The appellate court found probable cause was established when the asset protection manager “pulled the receipts in the system and viewed the store videos” that identified the employees.

“He had identified the cashiers and spoken with the managers about possible authorization to sell and purchase the steeply discounted tires. Based on this evidence, Spannuth, as Wal-Mart’s agent, could reasonably believe that Neff intentionally sold and purchased the tires at a price less than that approved by Wal-Mart with the intent to deprive Wal-Mart of part of its value,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote for the court. “When probable cause to detain is present, detention is lawful.”

The appellate court ultimately found that the trial court properly entered summary judgment in favor of Walmart on Neff’s remaining allegations sounding in negligence and tort and based on his arrest and termination by Walmart in Denny Alan Neff v. Wal-Mart Stores East, LP, 18A-PL-421.

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