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Spouse May Sue Partner's Employer, Appeals Court Says

Workplace: Ruling against Raytheon involves workers who relocated families for jobs they soon lost.

January 13, 1999|DAVAN MAHARAJ and ELEANOR YANG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Husbands or wives can sue their spouses' employers if bosses make false promises to lure them into accepting new jobs, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The ruling is one of the first court decisions allowing spouses to join their partners' suits against an employer for allegedly making false statements during the recruitment process, legal experts say.

The decision provides families of increasingly mobile workers with some recourse when employers don't make good on their hiring offers.

Many lawyers said the ruling will force employers to take extra precautions when recruiting prospective employees.

"The employer is doubly warned to make sure he can make good on the promises made," said Frank Cronin, an Irvine lawyer and labor law expert who defends corporations in employment lawsuits.

In ruling against defense contractor Raytheon Co., the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said it realized that "spouses make decisions as a family unit rather than as separate individuals."

The case involved four workers and their wives who sued Raytheon for false representation when the men were laid off shortly after accepting jobs and relocating their families.

"There may have been a time in our history when important family decisions were made by the husband with little or no input from the wife. If things were ever that way, they no longer are," wrote Judge Alex Kozinski in a concurring opinion for a divided three-member panel.

"A marriage is a partnership, and major decisions whether the family will pull up roots and move to a different city are normally made by the partners jointly," the judge said. "Only a very foolish employer will try to persuade a prospective employee to relocate without addressing the concerns of the spouse."

The ruling breathes new life into a suit filed by the workers and their wives against El-Jay Division of Cedarapids Inc., Raytheon's rock-crushing equipment factory formerly based near Eugene, Ore.

The families had appealed a federal judge's decision dismissing the suit. Tuesday's decision means the case will be returned to the lower court for a trial.

All four men said they had quit their jobs and turned down other offers to accept positions with the El-Jay plant. Recruiters told them that El-Jay was "ramping up," that it was a "stable company with few downsizings and layoffs" and that it would be hiring more staff and creating more positions.

But months later, the firm closed and relocated to Iowa in May 1995. The four men were among hundreds of workers laid off.

In their lawsuit, the four workers claimed that the company decided to close the plant in July 1994, long before any of them even applied for a job.

In court, Raytheon's lawyers asserted that a plan--not a decision--was in place and was contingent on approval of tax breaks in Iowa and other conditions.

In dismissing the workers' suit, a federal judge in Oregon said El-Jay executives were not obligated to reveal its closure plan to the workers or their spouses. But Kozinski and Judge David Alan Ezra, who wrote the majority opinion, disagreed.

Judge J. Clifford Wallace, who wrote a dissenting opinion, said the workers--but not their spouses--should be allowed to sue the employer.

Ezra said they decided to publish the opinion because few cases address the family issue and "we feel that future litigants will benefit" from it.

Employment lawyers said the case could have broad impact. "It's not only a good decision but a smart one," said Encino attorney Joseph Posner, who represents workers in employment disputes. "When you move one person, you move a whole family, and when you dump them out, based on false promises, you're hurting everyone."

Scott N. Hunt, who argued the case for the four families, called the ruling "a very positive opinion for employees."

"This is a significant opinion because it happens all the time . . . when people are recruited to move to locations, then told they no longer have jobs," Hunt said.

George Kirklin, an attorney for the company, said he was disappointed by the ruling but declined to comment further.

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