The Kansas Supreme Court delved into a long-running employment contract dispute Monday rising out of the ownership transition of a southwest Kansas feedlot featuring shop mechanic Douglas Peters' objection to getting laid off.
The case centers on whether Peters was justifiably dismissed, despite verbal assurances management would reduce staff at the 45,000-head feedlot near Satanta by attrition through retirements or resignations, and whether he deserved a trial on his claim of wrongful termination.
A Haskell County District Court judge granted summary judgment to Deseret Cattle Feeders, but the Kansas Court of Appeals reversed that finding and declared issues of material fact ought to be resolved at trial.
Deseret Cattle Feeders sought Supreme Court review in a bid to avoid a lower-court trial to settle whether Peters was an at-will employee who could be dismissed for any reason or, as Peters claimed, Deseret Cattle Feeders created an oral contract by telling him and others layoffs would be avoided amid the 2010 sale of the feedlot by Hitch Enterprises.
John Lindner, Peters' attorney, told Supreme Court justices during oral argument in Topeka that his client was laid off seven months after the feedlot changed hands and "should have his day in court." Lindner said evidence would show verbal promises were made about employee retention, but those positions were abandoned after the transition was complete.
On the other end of the spectrum, Deseret Cattle Feeders attorney Alan Rupe said Peters improperly interpreted optimistic verbal assurances from executives at Hitch Enterprises and Deseret Cattle Feeders to be an open-ended employment contract. Rupe said there was no question feedlot managers had asserted there was no plan for layoffs.
"I see that as an expression of hope," said Rupe, downplaying the weight of management promises to workers. "The Court of Appeals, I think, missed the boat."
Lindner challenged Rupe's perspective on the influence an employer's spoken word had on career decisions by workers.
"Allegations that these are expressions of hope? I wouldn't want to try to explain that to Mr. Peters or anyone in his position," Lindner said.
Chief Justice Nuss quizzed Rupe about his characterization of orally communicated promises to employees.
"Your position is that it doesn't matter because what was said is just fluff?" Nuss said.
Rupe said reality of the Supreme Court accepting Peters' view of employer-employee communications would result in a flood of lawsuits.
"If this case is decided on oral representations, Katy bar the door on lawsuits being filed anytime anybody is terminated," Rupe said.
Justice Eric Rosen said the record before the appellate courts demonstrated Deseret Cattle Feeders made job-security promises to employees of Hitch Enterprises amid the takeover. In addition, Justice Lee Johnson said, nothing in the record alleged Peters failed to meet job standards set by Deseret Cattle Feeders.
Peters said in a deposition he was told all but a couple managers on Hitch's payroll fired by Deseret Cattle Feeders didn't need to worry about their jobs.
"They were going to downsize, but it was going to be due to attrition in people quitting," Peters said. "They were not going to fire anybody or lay anybody off, as long as they did their job."