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PANKOW v. WESTAMERICA MORTG. CO.

May 8, 1990

DALE E. PANKOW, Plaintiff,
v.
WESTAMERICA MORTGAGE COMPANY, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MORAN

 JAMES B. MORAN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

 Plaintiff Dale Pankow brought this two-count action against defendant WestAmerica Mortgage Company (WestAmerica) seeking recovery for unjust enrichment and for breach of an oral contract of employment. We have before us defendant's motion for summary judgment on Count I, the contract claim. For the following reasons, the motion is denied.

 FACTUAL BACKGROUND

 On January 30, 1984, WestAmerica's agent, Ron Schweigert, hired Plaintiff as a correspondent liaison in defendant's Chicago office. At the time of hiring, and on at least one additional occasion, Schweigert told Pankow that as long as he performed satisfactorily, his job was secure. Schweigert further said that if Pankow did not perform adequately, he would receive oral and written warnings and a chance to improve before being fired. No WestAmerica representative, however, explicitly told Pankow that he could be fired only for cause. There was no written contract and no other references as to how long the employment relationship was expected to last.

 In June, 1984, WestAmerica distributed handbooks to its employees. Pankow received a copy and signed, without reading, a form WestAmerica included in the handbook. It said "Your employment at WestAmerica is at will. Verbal promises, promotions, pay increases, policies and the receipt of this handbook does not constitute a contract of employment."

 Pankow alleges that he was performing his job satisfactorily, yet he was fired in August, 1986, without cause and without any prior oral or written warnings. Pankow thus contends that his firing breached the terms of what he contends is an enforceable oral contract made when he was hired.

 Pankow filed suit alleging breach of contract in Count I and unjust enrichment in Count II. WestAmerica has moved for partial summary judgment, asking that we dismiss Count I on the grounds that Pankow was an employee at will.

 DISCUSSION

 At common law, the typical relationship between an employer and an employee could be terminated by either party at any time and for any reason. While this employment at will is subject to the law of contract, in that employees can demand that they receive the previously-agreed price for their labor, at-will employees traditionally could not complain about the conditions, procedures, timing, or reasons for their firing. They had no job security.

 Employers no longer enjoy an absolute right to fire employees for any reason or for no reason at all. Statutes now forbid employers to fire employees because of, inter alia, their race, sex, age, religion, pregnancy, or their efforts to organize a union. Judicial decisions forbid employers to discharge employees for reasons that violate a clearly mandated public policy. Barr v. Kelso-Burnett Co., 106 Ill. 2d 520, 525, 478 N.E.2d 1354, 1356, 88 Ill. Dec. 628, 630 (1985). Thus, employers may not fire employees for filing claims under the Workmen's Compensation Act, Kelsay v. Motorola, Inc., 74 Ill. 2d 172, 181, 384 N.E.2d 353, 357, 23 Ill. Dec. 559, 563 (1978), or for reporting criminal conduct to the police. Palmateer v. International Harvester Co., 85 Ill. 2d 124, 132, 421 N.E.2d 876, 879, 52 Ill. Dec. 13, 16 (1981).

 As the Supreme Court of Illinois has recognized, employees may also gain job security by contracting for it:

 
The majority of courts . . . interpret the general "employment at-will rule" as a rule of construction mandating only a presumption that a hiring without a fixed term is at will, a presumption which can be overcome by demonstrating that the parties contracted otherwise.

 Duldulao v. Saint Mary of Nazareth Hospital, 115 Ill. 2d 482, 489, 505 N.E.2d 314, 318, 106 ...


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