Posts Tagged ‘Nicollette Sheridan’

Desperate Housewife Still Desperate

August 17, 2012
Desperate Housewives (season 4)

Desperate Housewives (season 4) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Logo for the US television show Despe...

“A cause of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy does not lie if an employer decides simply not to exercise an option to renew a contract. In that instance, there is no termination of employment but, instead, an expiration of a fixed-term contract.”   Daly v. Exxon Corp. (1997) 55 Cal.App.4th 39, and quoted favorably in the brand-new case just handed down in California’s Second District Court of Appeal.  Touchstone Television Productions v. Superior Court (Sheridan) (2012) , Cal.App.4th [No. B241137. Second Dist., Div. Four. Aug. 16, 2012.]; (Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. BC435248, Elizabeth Allen White, Judge.)

The case involves Nicollette Sheridan, who sued her employer for wrongful termination after they declined to pick up her contract for another season.  In a written employment agreement, Touchstone Television Productions (Touchstone) hired actress Nicollette Sheridan (Sheridan) to appear in the first season of the television series Desperate Housewives.   The agreement gave Touchstone the exclusive option to renew Sheridan’s services on an annual basis for an additional six seasons.  Touchstone renewed Sheridan’s services up to and including Season 5.  However, during Season 5, Touchstone informed Sheridan it would not renew her contract for Season 6.

Sheridan, dissatisfied with getting dumped, naturally, did what most other aggrieved employees would do: she sued.

Sheridan sued Touchstone for wrongful termination in violation of public policy.  Sheridan alleged that Touchstone had fired her because she had complained about a battery allegedly committed upon her by Desperate Housewives’ creator Marc Cherry (Cherry). After litigating for quite some time, the case went to trial.  After the close of evidence, the jury deliberated, but was unable to reach a verdict.  Because the jury deadlocked, the trial court declared a mistrial.

The producer Touchstone, however, asked the trial court to throw the case out on legal grounds, arguing that it was not “wrongful termination” because the producer never terminated Sheridan.  Instead, the producer simply allowed the passage of time to elapse without exercising the option to renew the contract.  As such, the producer argued that it had not terminated Sheridan, but rather had simply not renewed her contract for an additional season.

The trial court denied the motion, but the producer appealed (it was technically a writ petition, in which the producer petitioned the Second District Court of Appeal for extraordinary relief).

The Second District Appellate Court stayed the pending retrial and issued an alternative writ of mandate.  The Court ruled:

Having reviewed the parties’ pleadings and heard oral argument, we conclude that the trial court erred in denying Touchstone’s motion for a directed verdict.  A cause of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy does not lie if an employer decides simply not to exercise an option to renew a contract. In that instance, there is no termination of employment but, instead, an expiration of a fixed-term contract. (Daly v. Exxon Corp. (1997) 55 Cal.App.4th 39 (Daly.) To hold otherwise would require the creation of a new tort for nonrenewal of a fixed-term employment contract in violation of public policy. We decline to do so. However, we conclude also that Sheridan should be permitted to file an amended complaint alleging a cause of action under Labor Code section 6310 (section 6310) that {Slip Opn. Page 3} Touchstone retaliated against her for complaining about unsafe working conditions (e.g., Cherry’s conduct) by deciding not to exercise its option to renew her contract. (But see fns. 5 & 6, infra.)

So, what does this mean for others?

Not much to most employees, but it does give the employers of contract labor a solid defense to any claim of wrongful termination, where, as here, the employer simply allows the contract to expire.  In the situation where an employee is hired for contractual term, if the employer believes the employee is not performing properly, then the employer enjoys the peace of mind that no wrongful termination lawsuit will have merit if the employer simply lets the contract term expire.  Even if the employee has some claim that the employer harbored an ill motive in not renewing the contract, the employee basically has no right to then turn that into a tort claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy.