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 reason.
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 from Pentrix.
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?
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