Barnes & Noble Facing Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

In an April 14th opinion, a California appeals court offered a summary judgment in a Barnes & Noble wrongful termination lawsuit. The summary judgment may have branded the popular retail bookstore as having wrongfully firing an employee who had been with them for 23 years.

The opinion was handed down by the California Sixth Appellate District Chief Justice Conrad L. Rushing and associate justices, determining that the issues raised by Christine Oakes were valid issues to try in court in regards to wrongful termination claims based on gender discrimination, public policy and contractual obligations.

Oakes worked as a manager for Barnes & Noble’s West Valley-Mission Community College in Saratoga for eight years (2002-2010). At the end of this time period, she was fired. Unhappy with the termination of her employment, Oakes filed a complaint in 2012 listing various defendants: Barnes & Noble, West Valley College, Laurie Gaskin, and Rhea Kaston.

In 1999, according to the opinion, Barnes & Noble received acknowledgement that Oakes received and signed off on their company code of conduct and ethics. As Oakes signed off on the policy, the company notes that she was aware that she was free to leave Barnes & Noble at any time during her employment and that she was an “at will” employee. Oakes agreed that she understood the “at-will” employee status and agreed to no promise of tenure or any form of employment contract at that time. According to the opinion, Oakes stated that her understanding of her status as an “at-will” employee was that she had to “do something” to the company in order for them to dismiss her from employment.

Oakes claims in the lawsuit that as a manager, she was advised to use progressive discipline prior to firing anyone on staff. She was not instructed to use every disciplinary step in every case of potential termination. During her 23 years with Barnes & Noble, Oakes received annual performance reviews. From 2001 through 2008 these reviews indicated that she lacked communication skills and organizational skills necessary for her job. Yet her overall scores in her reviews met or exceeded company standards. While individual categories in her reviews usually met or exceeded company standards, she had a below standard score in fiscal matters. This is particularly true of 2009 when she reportedly ended with $66,000 of excess inventory at her bookstore. Amid student complaints, reported absence from meetings, etc. Oakes began to defend her behavior with claims of discrimination against her by Michael Renzi, a frequent contact as the college vice president’s primary liaison. In 2010, Renzi and the College President contacted Oakes’ supervisor with the decision that Oakes was not a good fit for the university.

With no alternative position with Barnes & Noble, Oakes was fired in 2010 without notice. In 2013, Barnes & Noble moved for summary judgment claiming that Oakes was an at-will employee terminated for legitimate reasons. Oakes argued gender discrimination as the company failed to protect her from alleged sexual harassment by Renzi. The court ruled that Oakes’ deposition testimony would be considered at trial as it favored neither her nor the defendants. A date for the trial has not been set.

If you have concerns regarding a potential wrongful termination, please get in touch with one of the experienced California employment law attorneys at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.