Wrongful termination lawsuit against Barnes & Noble moves forward

By Angela Underwood | May 1, 2017

SAN JOSE — A California appeals court has revered a summary judgement in a lawsuit that brands Barnes & Noble for wrongfully terminating an employee who had worked for the company for 23 years.

In an opinion delivered April 14 by the California Sixth Appellate District Chief Justice Conrad L. Rushing and associate justices Eugene M. Premo and Adrienne M. Grover, the court determined Christine Oakes raised triable issues regarding wrongful termination based on gender discrimination and public policy and contract.

After working as a manager for Barnes & Noble at the West Valley-Mission Community College in Saratoga for eight years from 2002-2010, Oakes was fired. The disgruntled employee filed her first complaint in 2012 against Barnes & Noble, West Valley College, Laurie Gaskin and Rhea Kaston.

Barnes & Noble handed off the company’s code of conduct and ethics during Oakes employment and received an acknowledgement of her receipt in 1999, according to the opinion, which also adds Oakes signed off on the basis she was free to leave Barnes & Noble anytime during her employment as an “at-will” employee.

Agreeing to no promise of tenure or any type of employee contract, Oakes acknowledged her understanding of “at-will" as an employee that ultimately had to “do something to the company" to be let go, according to the opinion. Speaking of termination, one of the issues in the suit is that Oakes claims that as a manager she was directed to use progressive discipline before firing any staff, but she was “never instructed that every disciplinary step had to be used in every termination,” states the opinion.

During her 23-year-long employment, Oakes received annual performance reviews that reported that she lacked communication and organizational skills, specifically from 2001 to 2008. Though her comprehensive score achieved "applicable standards and met or exceeded standards in most individual categories,” she had a below standard rating in fiscal matters, specifically when she reportedly had $66,000 in excess inventory at her book store in 2009.

With student complaints of unavailability and reported absence from association’s meetings, Oakes argued in her defense she faced discrimination during her frequent contact with Michael Renzi, the college vice president's primary liaison. Ultimately, that relationship became her demise after “Renzi and College President Lori Gaskin contacted Oakes' supervisor in 2010 [and] decided that [the] plaintiff was not a good fit for the campus,” according to the opinion.

Finding no alternative position with Barnes & Noble, Oakes was fired in 2010 without notice and in 2013, Barnes & Noble moved for summary judgment, claiming Oakes “was an at-will employee who was terminated for legitimate business reasons." Oakes argued gender discrimination was why she was fired because since Barnes & Noble allegedly failed to protect her from alleged sexual harassment by Renzi.

The court ruled that because Oakes' deposition testimony about the definition of "at-will" employment favored neither her nor the defendants, her testimony will be considered at trial. No trial date has been set.

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