“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” -David McCullough
Hickory Foods, Inc. out of Jacksonville, Florida provided a departing employee, Jonathan Thomas, with a written severance package. The company wanted to pay Thomas an additional eight weeks of his annual salary as severance. The company did not want to pay the amount as a lump sum payment but wanted to pay it in four semi-monthly payments.
The agreement specifically said that the Company would pay Thomas “an annual salary in the amount of $56,398.68 pro rata from the Termination Date of April 1, 2013 through May 24, 2013.” [emphasis added]
Thomas agreed to the package. Hickory Foods then paid Thomas his four semi-monthly checks. Thomas received a total of $8,676.72. The payments then stopped. Thomas believed that he was owed more money. In fact, he believed that he had been promised his entire year’s salary and that the year’s salary would be paid in four semi-monthly payments of $14,099.67 each. The severance agreement language, according to Thomas, required the company to pay his annual salary “pro rata” over the eight weeks. Hickory Foods disagreed. Thomas sued Hickory Foods in Florida state court (Jacksonville) for the “promised” additional $47,721.96 of pay.
The trial judge threw out Thomas’ claim. Thomas appealed. The Florida First District Court of Appeal reversed the lower court’s decision. The appellate court wrote “Thomas’ claim does not appear to be in direct conflict with the severance agreement, but states a plausible interpretation of the agreement’s less than crystalline terms. For this reason, we do not agree that Thomas’ claims warranted dismissal with prejudice at this early stage of the litigation.”
If Hickory Foods had to do this over again, we imagine that it would have deleted the annual amount of salary from the severance agreement, put the exact dollar amount it was paying in writing and made it clear that it was only paying Thomas eight weeks of severance payments in the total amount of $8,676.72.
This case now returns to the trial court to sort out what additional amount Thomas may be owed, if anything. One certainty is that legal fees will be substantial.