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Law School Case Brief

Pugh v. See's Candies - 203 Cal. App. 3d 743, 250 Cal. Rptr. 195 (1988)

Rule:

After an employee establishes a prima facie case of breach of an implied employment contract, the employer has the burden of going forward with the evidence to show the reason for the discharge. The employee may then attack the employer's proffered explanation either on the ground that it is pretextual, and has the ultimate burden of proving that he or she was wrongfully terminated. "Just cause" and "good cause" connote a fair and honest cause or reason, regulated by good faith. Where the employee occupies a sensitive managerial or confidential position, the employer must of necessity be allowed substantial scope for the exercise of subjective judgment.

Facts:

Appellant, an at-will employee, was employed with respondent employer for 32 years. He occupied a managerial position and was a member of the board of directors when he was summarily discharged without prior notice. Asserting that his involuntary termination was a breach of contract and against public policy, appellant filed an action against respondent for wrongful discharge. The jury returned a verdict for respondent, and appellant challenged the decision, contending the trial court committed prejudicial error in its evidentiary rulings and in instructing the jury. Appellant urged both contract and tort theories to support recovery for wrongful discharge.

Issue:

Was character evidence improperly admitted at the trial on appeal since no objection had been made to the evidence at trial?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The Court of Appeal affirmed. It held that plaintiff's contentions that character evidence was improperly admitted at the trial was not cognizable on appeal since no objection had been made to the evidence at trial. The court further held that specific acts of misconduct are admissible to show that an employee is unfit or incompetent for the job. The reviewing court found appellant had failed to object to the evidentiary rulings in the prior proceeding and had waived any error. Regarding the jury instruction, appellant contended the court misapplied the instruction on bad faith to his contract action. The focus in the contract action was whether respondent had good cause to terminate appellant. The court found it not probable the jury was misled by the term "good cause" in view of the court's specific instructions in the tort action. Therefore, the judgment was affirmed.

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