AMedford man has won the right to have a jury decide the facts in a potential $500,000 lawsuit against Lithia Motors Inc., which asserts he was promised — then denied — a job.
The Oregon Supreme Court unanimously ruled the case can go to trial, reversing the decisions of Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Ron Grensky and the Oregon Court of Appeals.
Michael Cocchiara worked at a Lithia Dodge dealership for eight years as a sales associate. But in 2004, Cocchiara suffered a major heart attack. His doctors advised him to decrease his stress and work fewer hours, said his Medford attorney G. Jefferson Campbell.
Cocchiara discussed his health needs with his sales manager, while also pursuing other employment options. When Cocchiara received an offer to be a sales representative for the Mail Tribune, a position that satisfied his doctors' requirements, he told his boss he was leaving, Campbell said.
"And they said, 'Oh, don't take that job. You're too valuable,' " he said Thursday, adding Lithia management offered his client a "new corporate job" that would satisfy his health needs. But the company ultimately refused to give him the job, Campbell said.
The unanimous Supreme Court opinion, written by Chief Justice Thomas A. Balmer, outlines key arguments of Campbell and Lithia's attorney Ryan J. Vanderhoof, of the Medford lawfirm of Hornecker, Cowling, Hassen & Heysell.
"(Cocchiara's boss) advised (Cocchiara) that he had been given the corporate position and that he would be contacted the next day to come in and finalize the paperwork," the opinion states. When Cocchiara specifically asked "if the offer was definite," he was told it was. The next day's meeting was a "mere formality," Cocchiara was told. Based on that promise, Cocchiara declined the offer from the Mail Tribune, Campbell argued.
"Ultimately, (Lithia) did not hire (Cocchiara) for that job. When (Cocchiara) then tried to accept the Medford Mail Tribune's prior job offer, that job had been filled," Campbell told the court.
Cocchiara left Lithia and accepted a job with the Mail Tribune that paid less than the one he originally had been offered. He currently works at another car dealership for fewer hours and less pay. The lawsuit asks for economic and noneconomic damages that could tally up to a half-million dollars, Campbell said.
The issue before the court has been whether his client could pursue damages based on Oregon law, he said.
Vanderhoof said his clients deny Cocchiara's allegations, and he characterized this week's Supreme Court ruling as "just a procedural victory."
"It's a legal decision that means he can have his case heard as a matter of law," Vanderhoof said. "There's no winner or loser yet."
Vanderhoof had successfully argued before Grensky, and before the state's appeals court, that Cocchiara's case be thrown out because Oregon law allows employers to hire or fire employees "at will" in most cases.
Both parties agreed that, in Oregon, "the general rule is that an employer may discharge an employee at any time and for any reason, absent a contractual, statutory or constitutional requirement to the contrary."
Because the alleged offer from Lithia entailed "an at-will position," Cocchiara could have been terminated on his first day, Vanderhoof argued. Therefore there is no way to prove claims against Lithia for "promissory estoppel and fraudulent misrepresentation," he stated.
But the Supreme Court determined the legal right to fire an employee does not carry with it a "conclusive presumption that the employer will exercise that right."
The court has the obligation to view the facts in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, Balmer said. Cocchiara has the right to have a jury determine whether he has a valid claim. Including "what he would have earned in the corporate job and how long he likely would have remained in that job had he been hired as promised and allowed to start work," he stated.
Campbell agreed "it's a jury question," adding his client may seek to add punitive damages to his case, which has been remanded back to Grensky's courtroom.
"You can't back out on your promise," Campbell said.
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or firstname.lastname@example.org.