In March 1998, forty-three-year-old Peter Barnes read
an ad in the Chicago Tribune that Pentrix was seeking experienced word
processors to work in its Chicago office. Pentrix is a national
corporation specializing in the design and manufacture of hand-held
computers. The ad stated that Pentrix was looking for ?oexperienced word
processors seeking a career in a stable and growing company.?? On March
8, 1998, Barnes interviewed with Renee Thompson, the head of Pentrix’s
word processing department in Chicago. Thompson was impressed with
Barnes’s prior experience and reassured him that although Pentrix is a
national corporation, the employees in Pentrix are like a family and
look after one another. Thompson offered Barnes a job at the end of the
interview, and Barnes began work on March 15, 1998.
Barnes received an updated policy manual from the
personnel department every year that he worked for Pentrix. In addition
to discussing such things as vacation, salary, and benefits, the policy
manual described Pentrix’s progressive discipline system.
Pentrix’s progressive discipline system consisted of
three basic steps. First, an employee’s supervisor must discuss the
employee’s deficiencies with the employee and suggest ways for the
employee to improve his or her work performance. Second, the employee
must receive written notice of his or her poor performance with
suggestions of how the performance can improve. Third, the employee must
receive a written warning that if the employee’s performance does not
improve, he or she will be terminated.
The manual provided that in cases of ?omaterial
misconduct?? a supervisor had the discretion to decide whether to follow
the progressive discipline procedures. The policy manual also provided
that Pentrix had complete discretion to decide who would be discharged
in the event of a company layoff.
In 2000, the following language was added to the policy manual:
These policies are simply guidelines to management.
Pentrix reserves the right to terminate or change them at any time or to
elect not to follow them in any case. Nothing in these policies is
intended or should be understood as creating a contract of employment or
a guarantee of continued employment with Pentrix.
Employment at Pentrix remains terminable at the will
of either the employee or Pentrix at any time for any reason or for no
Barnes signed an acknowledgment of receipt of the 2000 policy manual.
Barnes received several good performance reviews
during the time he worked at Pentrix. On a few occasions, Thompson
discussed with Barnes the importance of arriving at work on time, but no
record was kept of the times that he was late. Thompson noted in
Barnes’s 2005 and 2006 performance evaluations that he should proofread
his work more carefully.
In October 2007, Barnes received an offer to work as a
word processor for Lintog, another computer manufacturing corporation
in Chicago. Barnes discussed this offer with Thompson. Thompson
persuaded Barnes to remain at Pentrix by suggesting that he might be
promoted to dayshift word processing supervisor when the current
dayshift supervisor resigned. The day-shift supervisor has yet to resign
Barnes was discharged from Pentrix on July 1, 2008.
Thompson told Barnes that he was being fired because Pentrix was
experiencing a slowdown and that two word processors were being let go
in each of Pentrix’s twenty offices across the country. Thompson wrote
on the separation noticeplaced in Barnes’s personnel file that Barnes
was being discharged as a result of a workforce reduction. Before
leaving on July 1, Barnes saw Olga Svetlana, Pentrix’s vice president of
computer design, getting into her car. Svetlana said to Barnes, ?oToo
bad about your job, but maybe this will teach you to stop leaking our
computer designs to other companies.??
Barnes had trouble sleeping and felt depressed after
being fired from Pentrix. He waited three weeks before he began looking
for another job. He then submitted an application to Lintog, the company
that had offered him a job in 2007. Rob Grey, the head of the word
processing department at Lintog, called Renee Thompson at Pentrix to
find out why Barnes had left. Thompson responded that Barnes had worked
in Pentrix’s word processing department for more than ten years and was
discharged as a result of a slowdown. Barnes interviewed with Grey on
July 26, 2008. During the interview, Grey asked Barnes why he had left
his job at Pentrix.
Barnes responded that although he was officially told
that he was being discharged because of a reduction in force, he was
fired because he was wrongly suspected of leaking the corporation’s
computer designs. Barnes was not hired by Lintog.
a. What claims might Barnes bring against Pentrix, Inc.?
b. If you were investigating whether Barnes could successfully sue Pentrix, what information would you want to know?
c. What damages might Barnes be entitled to recover?