Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Wrongful-Discharge Suits / a Major Growth Area in Legal Community

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Wrongful-Discharge Suits / a Major Growth Area in Legal Community

Article excerpt

LOS ANGELES - More and more, workers who think they were fired wrongfully are suing their former bosses.

People who keep up with the issue say such litigation accounts for about half the civil injury suits handled by labor law attorneys.

And, in a turnabout from the early years of such litigation when only highly paid executives sued, half the suits now are brought by non-management employees, according to a researcher studying the issue.

``There is a tremendous willingness of employees to sue employers,'' said Paul Grossman, a lawyer who handles such cases, mostly in defending managers.

Since a California court ruled in 1979 that employers do not have an unfettered right to dismiss workers at will, there has been a virtual explosion in the area of wrongful-discharge suits.

``This is a major growth area,'' said William B. Gould IV, a professor at the Stanford University Law School in Palo Alto, Calif.

The flood of such suits has made companies more reluctant to dismiss workers, more thorough in documenting reasons for a firing and more cautious about the reasons they give for termination - both to the worker and to future employers.

Besides suing for being terminated, some workers have filed and won libel suits against their ex-bosses for comments that damaged their reputations.

Grossman, of the Los Angeles law firm of Paul, Hastings, Jenofsky & Walker, said his company has between 600 and 700 active wrongful-discharge cases, compared to about 20 six years ago.

Grossman's firm is a leader in labor law that works mainly for management.

The trend toward wrongful-discharge actions has spread to most of the rest of the nation, but California remains the hotbed of such litigation, said Jim Dertouzous of Rand Corp., a prominent research center based in Santa Monica, Calif.

``California is by far the most liberal state in its interpretation of the law,'' Dertouzous said.

By the end of 1985, all but 10 states recognized restrictions on employers' ability to fire at will, he said. At the very least, they provided protection for ``whistleblowers'' who report misdeeds of their bosses, he said.

Even broader - and, from employers' viewpoint, more nettlesome - are emerging legal doctrines that employment itself constitutes an implied contract and that employers must actively try to help workers who are having trouble rather than just firing them.

While those doctrines are new to the United States with its tradition of giving companies free rein, employers in Japan, Europe and elsewhere historically have been far more restricted in their ability to dismiss workers.

The California Supreme Court is expected to decide before the end of the year a case that may help resolve some uncertainties in the law and possibly affect many other cases. …

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