Discipline doesn’t have to be reason for firing

The Associated Press
Friday October 06, 2000

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court handed employers a victory Thursday, ruling that nonunion workers can be terminated even if the company’s policy was only to fire for disciplinary reasons. 

The high court, voting 6-1, reversed a closely watched appeals court ruling that said a San Francisco man could sue his employer for wrongful termination even when his job was eliminated. The appellate court said John Guz could sue even though he was a non-contract, or so-called “at-will” employee at Bechtel National Inc. 

Employer groups had closely followed the case. In briefs submitted to the high court, they said if the court ruled in Guz’s favor, it would be nearly impossible to layoff workers to cut costs, which the San Francisco company said it did in this case. 

“If the court had ruled otherwise, every restructuring decision could be subject to the judicial process and thrown to a jury to decide,” said Steven Drapkin, a Los Angeles lawyer with the Employers Group, which represents 5,000 California businesses. The high court ruled that Bechtel could eliminate jobs “as it saw fit,” Justice Marvin R. Baxter wrote for the majority. 

Guz, a 23-year employee, lost his job at the engineering and construction firm in 1993 and sued, alleging he had an implied contract that he could only be fired for disciplinary reasons. Guz, 49 at the time, also claimed his layoff was based on age discrimination because younger workers were retained. 

The company said it terminated Guz because it eliminated several jobs, including the financial reports supervisor position he held, to cut costs.  

The court, however, kept alive a part of the suit that said Guz’s termination did not follow the company’s written layoff procedures.