Publishing More Is Not “Detrimental”

From Ndubizu v. Drexel Univ. (E.D. Pa. Feb. 23, 2011):

Plaintiff has also alleged in his Second Amended Complaint that Defendant Tsetsekos promised Plaintiff an endowed professorship, that Plaintiff detrimentally relied on this promise, and that injustice can only be avoided by enforcing the promise. More specifically, Plaintiff has stated that he worked harder and did not apply for other positions at other universities in reliance upon Defendant Tsetsekos’s promise. Defendants have moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff’s promissory estoppel claim, arguing that Plaintiff’s alleged detrimental reliance does not in fact constitute detrimental reliance under the law, that merely continuing to work and neglecting to seek other job opportunities is legally insufficient for promissory estoppel purposes.

Pennsylvania has adopted § 90 of the Restatement (Second) of Contracts: “A promise which the promisor should reasonably expect to induce action or forbearance on the part of the promisee or a third person and which does induce such action or forbearance is binding if injustice can be avoided only by enforcement of the promise.” Pennsylvania courts have more specifically held that:

In order to maintain an action in promissory estoppel, the aggrieved party must show that 1) the promisor made a promise that he should have reasonably expected to induce action or forbearance on the part of the promisee; 2) the promisee actually took action or refrained from taking action in reliance on the promise; and 3) injustice can be avoided only by enforcing the promise….

Plaintiff’s contention that he increased his scholarly productivity in reliance on Dean Tsetsekos’s promise fails to clear the bar for promissory estoppel, and I will grant summary judgment in favor of Defendants on this aspect of Plaintiff’s promissory estoppel claim.

As indicated above, any action taken in reliance on a promise must be detrimental before a plaintiff can prevail on a promissory estoppel claim. Under the facts at hand, any increase in work was not to Plaintiff’s detriment. Plaintiff has stated that he published articles and engaged in scholarly activities at a voracious pace; increased his production, writing a steady stream of top-flight articles; intensified, concentrated his entire life on generating high-powered research in top-tier journals; did extraordinarily more work than he had ever done or will ever do [EV says: The “will ever do” is a bad concession for someone seeking tenure!]; worked extraordinary long overtime with no immediate remuneration. However, any detriment caused by these actions is not apparent. Rather, Plaintiff has introduced evidence revealing the extent to which he benefited from his efforts and publications; numerous professors congratulated him on his accomplishments and commented on his increased prestige. Thus, by publishing additional articles, Plaintiff boosted his personal reputation, and increased his chances of being named to a chaired professorship at LeBow or elsewhere. This was not to his detriment, and as a result, Plaintiff’s promissory estoppel claim cannot proceed on this basis….

However, Plaintiff’s contention that he declined to pursue other employment opportunities in reliance on Dean Tsetsekos’s promise does survive Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment….

Recall that if Ndubizu had a binding contract, he would not need to prove that he detrimentally relied on the contract. But in the absence of a contract — perhaps because Prof. Ndubizu had not provided “consideration,” for instance in the form of a return promise to the university — he can sue on a promissory estoppel theory, which requires detrimental reliance