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Tidwell v. Toyota Auto Mart

OPINION FILED APRIL 21, 1978.

O'DELL TIDWELL ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,

v.

TOYOTA AUTO MART, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County; the Hon. MICHAEL MORRISON, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE GUILD DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

The plaintiffs, O'Dell Tidwell, Gary Pollock and Michael Bruce, each brought separate actions against Toyota Auto Mart, Inc., their former employer, to recover bonus payments allegedly due them. The cases were consolidated for a bench trial, following which the court entered judgments in favor of each of the plaintiffs. Toyota appeals from the denial of its post-trial motion and plaintiff Bruce has filed a counterappeal, alleging that the amount of the judgment in his favor was inadequate.

All three plaintiffs testified that they were employed under oral contracts. Tidwell and Pollock testified that they were employed as salesmen and that they were to receive a commission, plus a bonus which varied from $5 to $7 per car sold depending on how long they had been employed by Toyota. The bonus was to be paid around Christmas, provided they did not quit or get fired. Both Tidwell and Pollock admitted that after they went to work for Toyota they each signed a "Longevity Bonus Record" card, the relevant portion of which provided:

"This is a record of your Longevity Bonus.

It is agreed that this Bonus is not a part of your regular compensation but is an added incentive that the Company elects to give you at their descretion for extra effort, a fine and loyal attitude and high efficiency in the performance of the duties of your position.

It is also agreed that you must be continuously employed throughout the year to be eligible to draw this Bonus.

The Company elects to pay this Bonus approximately December 22nd." (Emphasis added.)

Pollock's testimony concerning the terms of his employment was generally supported by that of plaintiff Bruce, the sales manager who had hired him. As to his own employment as sales manager, Bruce testified that he was to receive a salary plus $5 for every car sold by Toyota, which was to be put into a fund and divided every year between the sales managers at approximately Christmas. Bruce admitted that when he had first been employed by Toyota as a salesman in 1972 he had signed a memorandum which provided, with regard to the bonus, that "you must be an employee of Toyota Auto Mart, Inc. at end of calander [sic] year." He also testified that he had quit and been rehired twice after that time, and that he had not signed any documents at all on the subsequent occasions.

All parties to this action seem to be in agreement that the relevant "year" for purposes of payments of bonuses ran from September 1, 1974, to August 31, 1975 (hereinafter sometimes referred to as the 1974-75 bonus year). They also agree that all plaintiffs were continuously employed by Toyota during this time period, until August 11, 1975, when the assets of Toyota were transferred to Wigglesworth. All employees of Toyota were apparently given final checks at that point. Thereafter plaintiffs went to work for Wigglesworth, and some other former employees of Toyota went to work for Frontier Ford.

Toyota presented only one witness, who had apparently been its assistant comptroller. He testified that so far as he knew all employees signed "Longevity Bonus Record" cards, which were to be retained by them, but admitted he had never seen such cards belonging to any of the plaintiffs. He also testified that some of Toyota's former employees did receive a bonus for the period in question, even though they were not employed by Toyota past August 11, 1975.

The trial court made a number of findings which are relevant to this case. Although specifically finding that the "Longevity Bonus Record" cards constituted part of the employment agreement between plaintiffs Tidwell and Pollock and Toyota, the court specifically declined to find that these embodied the entire agreement between the parties, noting, in part, that the cards did not state the type of bonus or the year involved. In addition, the court relied heavily upon the principle that courts> abhor forfeitures and will apply a rule of fundamental fairness and justice in determining whether the forfeiture should be sustained.

Toyota's contention on this appeal is that all of the plaintiffs' rights to a bonus are controlled by the terms of the "Longevity Bonus Record" cards and that plaintiffs are barred from receiving any bonus thereunder. Toyota interprets the cards to mean,

"Clearly the employee must be employed throughout the year to be eligible. Even then the company has discretion in determining who will receive the bonus payments."

Plaintiffs, on the other hand, argue that they were involuntarily terminated simply because their employer chose to sell its assets 20 days before the end of the year and that principles of equity and fairness should be applied to prohibit the ...


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