In Jameson v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Cal. Ct. App. Case No. A147515 (11/1/2017), the First Appellate Division affirmed summary judgment in favor of defendant PGE on the grounds that it had good cause to terminate its former employee, Steve Jameson.
Jameson’s employment history with PG&E extended back to 1977. He had risen in the ranks from apprentice welder to construction specialist/manager and in 2012 to Regional Construction Manager. In June 2013 a subordinate employee, Paul Nelson, reported a safety issue that was escalated to Jameson. Shortly thereafter, Nelson was transferred to another work location. Nelson complained about retaliation and the company launched an investigation, which determined that Jameson had made many more complaints about Nelson’s performance after the safety complaint than before. The conclusion was that Jameson had retaliated against Nelson.
Jameson sued for wrongful termination, claiming that he had an implied agreement with PG&E to only be terminated for good cause, due in part to his tenure of service. However, the Court did not need to reach this issue because it determined that PG&E did in fact have good cause: “PG&E met its summary judgment burden to show it acted reasonably and in good faith after an appropriate investigation determined Jameson retaliated against Nelson. The question, then, is whether Jameson demonstrated a triable issue of fact existed as to the adequacy of the investigation or PG&E’s good faith in relying on it. He did not.” For example, he did not identify evidence to support an inference that the investigator was biased, and the court of appeal found that he had “misrepresented” the investigator’s report, which found that Jameson had initiated the decision to transfer Nelson. Thus, summary judgment was appropriate.
The case demonstrates the difficulties and hurdles a plaintiff may encounter when there is a documented legitimate reason justifying the termination that independently withstands scrutiny. Moreover, a claim entirely predicated on an implied contract that at will employment does not apply is a dangerous tightrope to walk.