Monday, August 4, 2003
C.A. Upholds Firing of Times Employee for Threatening Police Officer
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district has upheld the right of the company that owns the Los Angeles Times to fire an employee who threatened a police officer with defamatory coverage after he arrested her for public intoxication.
Rhonda Belcher, who sold advertising for the newspaper in Orange County, was an at-will employee, Presiding Justice Vaino Spencer wrote in an unpublished opinion Thursday for Div. One, and her termination did not violate public policy.
Belcher sued Los Angeles Times Communications LLC and its parent, Tribune Company, after her employment was terminated in 2000. Belcher was with the newspaper for 14 years, working her way up from clerk to outside regional retail sales representative.
The events leading up to her termination begain in June 1997, when she became involved in an altercation at Panama Joe’s, a Long Beach bar. After allegedly assaulting the bartender and patrons, she was arrested and placed in a police car.
A tape recording of her comments while in the car includes her telling the arresting officer that she was “an L.A. Times executive.” She said he had “made a big, bad move,” and she was “going to write a story about him” and that she was going to tell someone else who “works for the L.A. Times” that the officer “raped me on the way here.”
When the officer said, “What, make up stuff and lie,” according to the recording, Belcher responded, “Oh, yes, I will.”
Belcher later told a number of Times employees that she was beaten and raped by the police officer, whom she sued for battery. He brought a cross-complaint for defamation.
Belcher contended that the tape recording had been altered and did not accurately reflect what occurred. Jurors, however, rejected her claims and awarded the officer $350,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.
Times personnel, after deciding to hold off on disciplinary action pending the outcome of the trial, concluded that Belcher had violated company policy by threatening to use the newspaper’s editorial coverage to advance a personal agenda.
Belcher, according to evidence submitted in connection with the Times’ motion for summary judgment, then admitted that she had not been raped, but claimed she had told the officer she would make up a story because she feared he would rape her otherwise.
A Times vice president agreed that this might be considered a mitigating factor and that Belcher should receive a final written warning rather than be terminated. But after the case became the subject of a story on Channel 4’s local newscast, which quoted Belcher’s testimony that she would lie whenever it suited her purpose, senior executives of the newspaper reviewed the handling of the matter and concluded she should be fired
Belcher sued for breach of implied contract, termination in violation of public policy, and disability discrimination. She claimed that she had done nothing to deserve termination, that the company should be bound by its initial decision to warn rather than fire her, and that she was discriminated against because she suffers from alcoholism.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Frances Rothschild granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding no triable issue as to any of the claims.
Spencer, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge was correct.
Belcher, the jurist noted, had signed multiple documents acknowledging her employment was at-will, and said nothing in the Times’ conduct toward her created an implied contract not to be terminated without just cause.
Spencer also rejected the plaintiff’s claims that her firing violated public policy, including policies against termination “for lawful conduct occurring during nonworking hours away from the employer’s premises,” or for participation in a judicial proceeding.
There is no fundamental policy, however, that gives an employee absolute protection against being terminated for off-duty misconduct, Spencer wrote, noting that the courts have upheld employer’s rights to terminate workers for suing a client of the employer, for becoming romantically involved with a fellow employee, and for writing a letter that reflected poorly upon the employer.
“Plaintiff’s abuse of her association with The Times falls in the same category as the acts described above,” the presiding justice. “There is no public policy that would prevent The Times from requiring an employee to contract formally that she would refrain from using her association with it to seek a personal advantage when dealing with third parties.”
Nor, Spencer said, did any of the remaining claims have merit. Terminating an employee for becoming involved in an alcohol-related incident that impacts negatively on the employer is not the same thing as firing someone for being an alcoholic, the jurist said.
“Alcoholism might have induced plaintiff to become drunk,” Spencer wrote. “It did not force her to engage in assaultive behavior, leading to her arrest, or thereafter to abuse her relationship with The Times, however.”
The case is Belcher v. Tribune Company, B163640.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company