On August 3, 2006, the California Supreme Court ruled reversed an appellate court ruling that had reversed a trial court summary judgment on behalf of the defendant employer. The Appellate Court ruling would have allowed Plaintiff Dore to bring specific causes of action against his former employer. However, the Supreme Court’s decision, relying heavily on the express “at will” language in his employment contract, effectively denied any legal recourse to Dore.
Our view at the present time is that this case is not a material change to employment law in California. California is generally an “at will” state, meaning that an employer can fire an employee at any time, for any reason (i.e. no cause is required). However, that is not the end of the inquiry, as there are many causes of action that fall outside “at will” or trump “at will”. Fraud would be an example of the former, and a discriminatory firing of a protected class member would be an example of the latter.
Some of our colleagues representing employers believe that the recent Dore decision has somehow made California a “super at will” state. We don’t read it that way. Our view is that the Dore decision simply stated that absent a legal theory outside of the underlying at will employer-employee relationship, “at will” shields the employer. In Dore the Plaintiff either lacked such claims, failed to plead such claims or lacked sufficient evidence to support such claims. Regardless, nothing we read in Dore seems to abrogate long established employees’ rights under California Public Policy, California Statute or Tort.
Dore’s specific claims included variations on two contract theories, two variations of fraud and one other tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court noted that the express language of the employment contract, signed by Dore, included unambiguous “at will” language, thereby defeating any contract claims. No surprise there.
In looking at the fraud claims, the Court noted simply that the record did not contain the requisite elements, by Dore’s own admission under deposition, to support his allegations under either fraud theory, and lacking such elements there presumably could be no intentional infliction of emotional distress (although the court did not address this point). We disagree with those who suggest that the Court held that “at will” now trumps fraud.
Based on the foregoing, we view Dore as an opportunity for the Court to refine the meaning of “clear and unambiguous” with respect to the admissibility of parole evidence to clarify and employment agreement with an express “at will” clause, and nothing more. Dore v. Arnold Worldwide, Inc. (2006), Cal.4th [No. S1224494, Aug. 3, 2006.] (7-0, 2 concurring opinions).
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