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Wrongful Termination

Although many states are fire-at-will states, there may be circumstances that allow legal action to proceed against employers. For example, a firm that appears to adhere to a plan of progressive discipline actions prior to terminating staff members and then terminates an employee while failing to following that plan can be putting themselves in legal danger. In one example of this, the California Appellate Court ruled that the employees claim could proceed even though the company was a fire-at-will company.

Proceedings in other states have had similar outcomes so it is worthwhile exploring what happened in this situation.

The case in question occurred with Barnes & Noble Booksellers and their employee Christine Oakes. Christine began working for B&N starting in 1987 as became store manager in 1989. She also managed the West Valley-Mission Community University Campus location from 2002-2010.

Several times throughout her career with Barnes & Noble, Christine acknowledge she had received and reviewed the B&N code of conduct. She also signed an acknowledgement that she understood she was an at-will employee.

The company’s employee manual also had a disclaimer that it was not a contract and was for reference purposes only. The manual made it clear that they were a fire-at-will company meaning they could let go of employees without prior notice and without cause.

The manual also contained a specific policy of employee discipline, specifying that managers use certain training tools and procedures to progressively discipline their employees. The discipline begins with a verbal warning and progresses through a written warning. The handbook also stated that if a significant offense was taken, the initial disciplinary steps could be skipped. Also, if the infraction was significant, the person could be terminated without any prior disciplinary steps.

Oakes’ received good annual performance reviews until 2009. While she was rated as satisfactory or exceeded criteria in many measurements, she was found to not meet standards in the area of liability, client focus, and interaction.

Barnes & Noble terminated Oakes on June 1, 2010 without prior warning. Likewise B&N failed to leverage the discipline process it outlined in its employee guide.

In April 2012 Oakes sued the company for wrongful termination. This was based on the concept that B&N was in breach of contract.

The company requested a summary judgment in 2013, asking for the claims to be dismissed before trial. They said that she was a fire-at-will employee let go for legitimate reasons. The court approved the motion but Oakes appealed.

In a deposition taken prior to the dismissal of the lawsuit, Oakes said that she had been told by B&N’s HR department to use the progressive discipline process outlined in the employee manual prior to letting go of employees. She also noted that if she terminated someone without taking these steps, she was reprimanded by the company.

To support her testimony, two other managers affirmed Oake’s testimony. They said that they were not aware of any other cases where employees had been let go without the handbook’s recommendations being followed.

Does employment agreement match actual practice?

Although California is a fire-at-will state, the appeals court noted that events in an employee partnership can alter that status.

Barnes & Noble had stated that they were a fire-at-will company in their handbook but there was indeed evidence that this policy was not their intent. The court noticed that the company was correct in their ability to be a fire-at-will employer. However they acknowledged the existence of a separate unwritten policy. The court found their actual plan was using progressive discipline before terminating an employer. The appellate court used this information to change the trial courts dismissal of the case and stated that a trial was needed to figure out exactly the terms of the employer’s policies and if Barnes & Noble had breached those terms.

Protecting your business from lawsuits…

An expert guideline in this case is that it is essential to understand that actions do speak louder than words. Although a business may state certain policies and procedures, their day-to-day running of the company may not be followed consistently. Not following policies consistently puts businesses at high risk for lawsuits.

If you have a business with employees, we highly recommend that you take a close look at EPLI or employment practices liability insurance. It helps protect you from claims of things like wrongful termination, discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation. Because while you may believe you are operating within the law, a court may disagree. Be sure to talk with us about affordable EPLI options for your business.