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California workers were put on alert by the state Supreme Court on Thursday that at-will jobs are just that: Employers don’t need a reason to fire you. The unanimous ruling is a boon for the business community and clarifies an area of the law that had gotten increasingly murky because of conflicting appellate court opinions in recent years. “As long as you use the phrase ‘at will,’ it means at will,” overjoyed defense lawyer Robert Mason III said Thursday. Mason, a San Francisco-based of counsel for L.A.’s Bergman & Dacey, represented Arnold Worldwide Inc., a Los Angeles advertising agency sued for breach of contract by a former vice president and management supervisor, Brook Dore. Arnold Worldwide fired Dore in 2001 without cause, 28 months after he had moved from Denver to take the job. He claimed his contract implied he could only be discharged for good cause. Much of Dore’s case rested on his claim that a letter by Arnold Worldwide executives defining “at will” as a right to terminate employment “at any time” was an implied-in-fact agreement that he could only be fired for good cause. That argument wasn’t a stretch, either. State appellate courts have reached the same conclusion in three other employment cases in the last 21 years. Unfortunately for Dore, the Supreme Court repudiated those rulings on Thursday and went with the one appellate decision that held otherwise. “We disagree with Dore,” Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote, “that the verbal formulation ‘at any time’ in the termination clause of an employment contract is per se ambiguous merely because it does not expressly speak to whether cause is required. As a matter of simple logic, rather, such a formulation ordinarily entails the notion of ‘with or without cause.’” In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Marvin Baxter practically scoffed at Dore’s argument, saying his at-will employment could hardly have been more evident. “No rational person could believe this language meant both parties were obliged to continue the employment relationship except upon ‘good cause,’” he wrote. “The words ‘at will’ and ‘at any time,’ as used in the letter, would make no sense if the parties really meant the opposite � that good cause was required for termination.” Clay Robbins III, a partner in L.A.’s Magana, Cathcart & McCarthy who represented Dore, said he was surprised by the ruling. He felt there was extrinsic evidence � such as prior managers being fired for cause and Dore’s job being described as a long-term position � that indicated cause was required for termination. Robbins said the ruling “gives almost carte blanche power to employers � in my mind � to improperly define terms and also gives imprimatur to employers to describe a position in certain ways and basically reverse position once they get [a person] into an employment relationship. “It’s almost like ‘buyer beware,’ frankly.” In his separate concurrence, Baxter addressed the issue of extrinsic evidence in the abstract by arguing that the high court should reconsider its 1968 ruling in Pacific Gas & E. Co. v. G.W. Thomas Drayage etc. Co., 69 Cal.2d 33. That opinion said latent ambiguity in contracts may be exposed by extrinsic evidence that reveals more than one possible meaning. “The effect,” Baxter wrote, “is that, despite their best efforts to produce a clear written agreement, parties can never confidently conduct their affairs on the basis of the language they have drafted.” He practically welcomed a challenge to Pacific Gas, saying he was “open” to a “comprehensive re-examination in an appropriate case.” Justice Carol Corrigan concurred. Thursday’s ruling is Dore v. Arnold Worldwide Inc., 06 C.D.O.S. 7078.

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