Former Gates Foundation Employee Awarded $4.9M for Breach of Contract, Promissory Estoppel Claims against Former Employer

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What is a broken promise worth?  For one former Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (“Gates Foundation”) employee, it was worth $4.9 million.  In October, the Washington State Superior Court for King County held that a former technology executive at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was entitled to $4.9 million in lost compensation damages after his employment was terminated.

In 2014, the employee was recruited by the Gates Foundation under the alleged pretense that his role would be a strategic, visionary one.  In 2015, the employee left his lucrative job with Salesforce (where he had an annual salary of $1.5 million and several million in unvested stock options) to join the Gates Foundation.  Once the employee started working for the Gates Foundation in 2015, he found that several members of the leadership team did not “buy in” to his role as a strategic and transformative one; instead, they merely wanted him to “fix IT.”  After a little more than a year, the employee was terminated.

In 2017 the employee sued the Gates Foundation asserting claims for promissory estoppel, breach of contract, and negligent misrepresentation.  The employee claimed that the Gates Foundation promised him a strategic role and that he relied on that promise to his detriment; that the Gates Foundation breached its employment contract with him; and that the Gates Foundation supplied him with false information during the recruitment process. Ultimately, the court agreed with the employee on the promissory estoppel and breach of contract claims but it held that he had not met his burden of establishing negligent misrepresentation.  The Gates Foundation reportedly intends to appeal the decision.

Though the employee did not prevail on his negligent representation claim, this case is an important reminder that employers should be mindful of the representations and commitments they make in the course of recruitment.  Please let us know if you want help managing your recruitment communications – as this recent judgment shows, it will be far more affordable to get ahead of this issue.

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