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Touchstone Television Productions v. the Superior of Los Angeles County

August 16, 2012

TOUCHSTONE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS, PETITIONER,
v.
THE SUPERIOR OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY, RESPONDENT; NICOLLETTE SHERIDAN ET AL., REAL PARTIES IN INTEREST.



ORIGINAL PROCEEDINGS in mandate. Elizabeth Allen White, Judge. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BC435248)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Willhite, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Petition granted.

INTRODUCTION

Touchstone Television Productions (Touchstone) hired actress Nicollette Sheridan (Sheridan) to appear in the first season of the television series Desperate Housewives. The agreement gave Touchstone the exclusive option to renew Sheridan's services on an annual basis for an additional six seasons. Touchstone renewed Sheridan's services up to and including Season 5. During Season 5, Touchstone informed Sheridan it would not renew her contract for Season 6.

Insofar as is relevant to this writ proceeding, Sheridan sued Touchstone for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Sheridan alleged that Touchstone had fired her because she had complained about a battery allegedly committed upon her by Desperate Housewives' creator Marc Cherry (Cherry). The jury deadlocked on this claim and the trial court declared a mistrial. Touchstone moved for a directed verdict, contending that it had not terminated Sheridan, but rather had simply not renewed her contract for an additional season. The trial court denied the motion.

Touchstone petitioned this court for extraordinary relief. We stayed the pending retrial and issued an alternative writ of mandate. Having reviewed the parties' pleadings and heard oral argument, we conclude that the trial court erred in denying Touchstone's motion for a directed verdict. A cause of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy does not lie if an employer decides simply not to exercise an option to renew a contract. In that instance, there is no termination of employment but, instead, an expiration of a fixed-term contract. (Daly v. Exxon Corp. (1997) 55 Cal.App.4th 39 (Daly.) To hold otherwise would require the creation of a new tort for non-renewal of a fixed-term employment contract in violation of public policy. We decline to do so. However, we conclude also that Sheridan should be permitted to file an amended complaint alleging a cause of action under Labor Code section 6310 (section 6310) that Touchstone retaliated against her for complaining about unsafe working conditions (e.g., Cherry's conduct) by deciding not to exercise its option to renew her contract. (But see fns. 5 & 6, infra.)

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In 2004, Touchstone hired Sheridan, through her loan-out company Starlike Enterprises, Inc. (Starlike), to play the character of Edie Britt in the television series Desperate Housewives. Touchstone's agreement with Sheridan was for the series' initial season but it gave Touchstone the exclusive option to renew her services on an annual basis for up to an additional six seasons. The agreement provided that if Touchstone exercised its option, it was obligated to pay Sheridan for that particular year but was not obligated to use her services. Touchstone exercised its option and renewed its agreement with Sheridan in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 for Seasons 2, 3, 4 and 5.

During the September 24, 2008 filming of a Season 5 episode of Desperate Housewives, an incident occurred between Sheridan and Cherry, the series' creator. Sheridan claims that Cherry hit her. Thereafter, Sheridan complained to Touchstone about Cherry's (alleged) battery.

In February 2009, while the production of Season 5 was on-going, Touchstone informed Sheridan that it had decided not to exercise its option for Season 6. Touchstone explained that during Season 5 Sheridan's character (Edie Britt) would be killed in a car accident. As required by contract, Touchstone paid Sheridan $4.2 million for her services for the entirety of Season 5 even though she did not appear in every episode of that season. After the February 2009 meeting, Sheridan appeared in three more episodes of Season 5's Desperate Housewives; Sheridan engaged, as obligated by her contract, in publicity for the series; and Sheridan's profit sharing agreement with Touchstone vested. As televised, the Season 5 story arc included Edie Britt's death during a car accident and her subsequent return as a ghost.

In April 2010, Sheridan*fn1 sued Touchstone and Cherry.*fn2 Essentially, Sheridan alleged that Cherry had committed a battery upon her in September 2008, and that she had been fired in February 2009 in retaliation for complaining about Cherry's conduct. Sheridan sought compensatory damages in excess of $20 million and punitive damages.

In February 2012, the matter went to trial on three causes of action: wrongful termination in violation of public policy, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and battery. During trial, the court granted a directed verdict for Cherry and Touchstone on the battery cause of action*fn3 and Sheridan voluntarily dismissed the cause of action for breach of the implied covenant. The jury deadlocked on the wrongful termination cause of action and the trial court declared a mistrial.

Touchstone moved for a directed verdict on the wrongful termination claim. (Code Civ. Proc., § 630, subd., (f).) Touchstone raised a theory that it had unsuccessfully advanced three times earlier in the proceeding: Sheridan's employment had not been terminated; instead, Touchstone had simply decided not to renew her contract.*fn4 Relying upon Daly, supra, 55 Cal.App.4th 39, Touchstone argued that its decision made during Season 5 not to exercise its option to hire Sheridan for Season 6 of Desperate Housewives could not ...


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