Tuesday, August 8, 2006
After decades of waffling in California, it's official: "At will" employment literally means "at will." Where an employment agreement specifies that it is at will, courts in the Golden State will not imply a "for cause" limitation on firing. The ruling by the California Supreme Court clarifies things in the wake of appellate decisions that previously had been all over the board.
In the case, Dore v. Arnold Worldwide Inc., 06 C.D.O.S. 7078, the employee argued that the "at will" language was ambiguous, and offered evidence of an implied-in-fact agreement not to terminate without good cause. The Second District Court of Appeals agreed in 2004, holding that summary judgment for the employer was improper. The employee's evidence in that case was typical of these sorts of disputes:
Dore interviewed for the position with several of Arnold’s officers and employees. These officers and employees had been with Arnold from five to twenty-five years. In the interviews Dore was told Arnold had landed a new automobile account in its Los Angeles office and needed someone with his background and experience to handle the account on a “long-term” basis. Among other things, Arnold officials told Dore if hired he would “play a critical role in growing the agency,” Arnold was looking for “a longterm fix, not a Band Aid,” and Arnold employees were treated as “family.” Dore also learned the fate of the last two persons to hold the management supervisor position in the Los Angeles office: one was fired for “financial indiscretions” the other was terminated because his work did not satisfy a major client.
Arnold offered Dore the management supervisor position by telephone in early April 1999. Dore orally accepted the offer and subsequently signed the bottom of a letter from Arnold signifying his acceptance of “the terms of this offer.” Dore acknowledges the letter did not specifically guarantee him a particular period of employment and did not specifically state he could only be terminated for good cause. Nevertheless, Dore testified that based on his conversations with Arnold officials he believed “as long as Idid a good job and that my position continued to exist, I would continue to be employed
That wasn't enough for the Supreme Court, which reversed, 9-0, in an opinion by Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar that held that the contractual term was not ambiguous and that the employer was entitled to summary judgment.
Interestingly, two judges in a concurring opinion went out of their way to call for a reexamination of California's famous (or infamous, depending on your view) parol evidence case, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. G.W. Thomas Drayage Co., 69 Cal. 2d 33 (1968).
[Frank Snyder -- hat tip to Scott Burnham]