Procedural Posture

Procedural Posture

Plaintiff employee sued defendant employer after he was terminated. A jury found both that there was an effective agreement for at-will employment and that the employer breached an implied agreement to terminate only for good cause. The Superior Court of San Diego County, California, granted the employer’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), Code Civ. Proc., § 629, and entered judgment for the employer. The employee appealed.

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Overview

The trial court found that the express terms of the at-will agreement prevailed over the contradictory terms of the implied for-cause agreement. In reversing, the court held that it was improper to grant JNOV based on one of the jury’s verdicts. The remedy for inconsistent verdicts was not to grant judgment as a matter of law in favor of one of the parties but rather to order a new trial. The court also held that evidence pertaining to the existence of an implied agreement was conditionally admissible, since the jury could have determined that the at-will agreement was not effective. The JNOV could not be affirmed on the alternative grounds that the employee was estopped from claiming that the at-will agreement was ineffective or that there was not substantial evidence to support the finding of an implied contract. The evidence supporting that finding included that the employee’s managers made repeated assurances of continued employment during the employee’s long tenure, that the employer’s customary practice was to terminate employees only for cause, and that employee handbooks contained personnel policies that were arguably inconsistent with an at-will employment relationship.

Outcome

The court reversed the judgment and remanded the case to the trial court with directions to deny the employer’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, to grant the employer’s motion for a new trial, and to conduct any further proceedings in a manner consistent with the opinion.

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