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MICHAEL S. ROBERTSON v. ATLANTIC RICHFIELD PETROLEUM PRODUCTS COMPANY A DIVISION ATLANTIC RICHFIELD COMPANY (12/21/87)

filed: December 21, 1987.

MICHAEL S. ROBERTSON
v.
ATLANTIC RICHFIELD PETROLEUM PRODUCTS COMPANY A DIVISION OF ATLANTIC RICHFIELD COMPANY, APPELLANT



APPEAL FROM THE JUDGMENT ENTERED FEBRUARY 24, 1987 IN THE COURT OF COMMON PLEAS OF ALLEGHENY COUNTY, CIVIL NO. G.D.84-1942.

COUNSEL

Charles W. Kenrick, Pittsburgh, for appellant.

Charles S. Morrow, Pittsburgh, for appellee.

Cirillo, President Judge, and Johnson and Montgomery, JJ.

Author: Cirillo

[ 371 Pa. Super. Page 55]

This is an appeal from an order entered in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County denying appellant

[ 371 Pa. Super. Page 56]

ARCO's post-trial motions in a breach of contract of employment action brought by its former employee, appellee Michael S. Robertson.

Robertson had been an employee of ARCO for approximately seven and one half years in its Pittsburgh offices before the transfer at issue in this case. In Pittsburgh, Robertson, in his management position there, coordinated deliveries to retail service station dealers and distributors in a seven state area. His performance reviews were consistently excellent.

In February of 1982 ARCO approached Robertson concerning a position involving product delivery at ARCO's Newark terminal, a position for which Robertson's qualifications were less than commanding, as was openly acknowledged by all concerned. Robertson was concerned that, should he fail to master this new position, one totally outside of his previous experience with the company, it might hurt his career with ARCO. ARCO subsequently offered appellee the position on a trial basis with the understanding that periodic reviews would be undertaken and that, should Robertson's performance remain unsatisfactory at the end of the trial period, he would be reassigned. Following the interview with Robertson, ARCO's eastern regional manager prepared an internal memo, the pertinent portion of which reads:

In light of the circumstances cited above [reservations about his effectiveness], I advised Mr. Robertson that he would be accepted for the Newark assignment on a trial basis and that if after a reasonable period of time (three to six months) he was unable to perform effectively, reassignment action would be taken.

Robertson began the new assignment in February of 1982 immediately after these discussions, later moving his home to the Philadelphia area. Robertson's performance was reviewed in May of 1982, September of 1982, and April of 1983. At each of these junctures ARCO recognized appellee's obvious efforts to improve his performance, noted areas which still needed improvement, and decided to extend

[ 371 Pa. Super. Page 57]

    the trial period. In April of 1983, ARCO was informed that the eastern portion of the company was being sold, and there followed a subsequent reduction in the work force. In June of 1983 Robertson was terminated because of his unsatisfactory performance. ARCO attempted to find another position for him but because other employees being displaced as a result of the sale had better performance records, they were preferred for any available openings. Robertson was subsequently sporadically employed with salaries and prospective salaries (Robertson was still interviewing at the time of trial) of approximately $18,000, $10,000 less than he had been making at ARCO.

In February of 1984 Robertson filed suit alleging, inter alia, breach of employment contract. Following a jury verdict for Robertson and denial of ARCO's timely post-trial motions, ARCO filed the instant appeal with this court.

Appellant presents three issues for our consideration, alleging reversible error as to each: (1) rulings of the trial court adverse to the defendant as to the legal sufficiency of plaintiff's claim; (2) denial of a new trial despite the existence of prejudicial error; and (3) refusal of remittitur. At the outset we will address the first contention since, unless the trial court is upheld in the actions complained of in this argument, there will be no need to reach the second and third issues.

The threshold question for this court is whether Robertson's employment was at-will at the time of his discharge. We will not review terminations of at-will employment relationships. Veno v. Meredith, 357 Pa. Super. 85, 97, 515 A.2d 571, 577 (1986). The verdict in the trial court was for Robertson, indicating that the jury found that his relationship with ARCO at the time of his discharge was not employment at-will.

This court's recent decisions in this area of the law contain extensive discussion of Pennsylvania's at-will doctrine and existing exceptions and are cited repeatedly by both parties. These cases provide guidance for this court in

[ 371 Pa. Super. Page 58]

    the instant matter but no single case controls the outcome here.

The parties to this appeal do not disagree on what must be shown in order to rebut the presumption of at-will employment, a long-standing doctrine in Pennsylvania law. Appellant had the benefit of this presumption and the the burden of persuasion to rebut it was with appellee Robertson.

All employment is considered to be at-will absent: (1) sufficient additional consideration; (2) an agreement for a definite duration; (3) an agreement specifying that the employee will be discharged only for just cause; or (4) an applicable recognized public policy exception. The parties concede that (3) and (4) are not ...


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