By: Sam G. Sherman
As many Desperate Housewive’s fans know, Edie Williams (Nicollette Sheridan) suffered a tragic death by eletrocution at the end of season 5. Sheridan quickly filed suit claiming that Touchstone Television and Marc Sherry (the show’s creator) wrongfully terminated her after she complained about Sherry allegedly hitting her during filming of an episode. Sheridan was receiving $175,000 episode at the time Touchstone decided not to renew her contract.
After a mistrial, the case went to the appellate court to decide whether Sheridan’s lawsuit properly stated a claim for wrongful termination. The court ultimately decided that it did not because, to support a cause of action for wrongful termination, there must be a termination (makes sense). In this case, Sheridan was not “terminated” because Touchstone didn’t terminate her, but merely decided not to renew her contract. This ruling won’t have a broad application for most California employers that do not have fixed term employment agreements with their employees, but, instead, treat employees as “at-will.”
One interesting take-away from the case was the court’s decision to allow Sheridan to amend her complaint to allege that Touchstone retaliated against her for complaining about unsafe working conditions. Hypothetically, Touchstone’s failure to renew her contract would be a sufficient “adverse employment action” to support a retaliation claim even though she was never technically terminated.
The take-away from this case is to make sure that you take all employee safety complaints seriously, investigate them, and make clear that an employee lodging such complaints will not suffer any adverse employment action. It is also a good idea to have an employment attorney review your employee handbook to ensure it makes clear that the company won’t retaliate against employees making such complaints.