Touchstone Television Productions v. Superior Court (Sheridan): Refusal To Renew An Employment Contract Is Not A Termination

[author: Natalie A. Rainforth]

Touchstone Television Productions v. Superior Court, No. BC435248, 2012 WL 3525609 (Aug. 16, 2012)

If you are among the throngs of Desperate Housewives fans, you may recall when Wisteria Lane’s Edie Williams, played by actress Nicollette Sheridan, tragically died of electrocution following a car accident during the show’s fifth season. Sheridan later filed a lawsuit against Touchstone Television Pictures (“Touchstone”), Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry (“Cherry”), and other parties (who have since been dismissed), alleging that her on-screen death and Touchstone’s subsequent failure to renew her fixed-term employment contract were tantamount to a wrongful termination in violation of public policy under California law. Before the series began, Sheridan and Touchstone executed an agreement which paid Sheridan a reported $175,000 per episode to start and gave Touchstone the exclusive option to renew the contract on an annual basis for six seasons. Touchstone exercised its option to renew the contract for Seasons 2 through 5, but informed Sheridan during Season 5 that it would not do so for Season 6. Sheridan alleged in her lawsuit that Touchstone’s decision was the result of a complaint she made about Cherry purportedly striking her during the filming of an episode. (She also asserted a claim of battery, on which the trial court granted a directed verdict in favor of Touchstone and Cherry.)

At the end of the trial (during which Sheridan, in response to questioning about why she sometimes stated she was “slapped” by Cherry and at other times claimed she was “violently hit,” retorted, "I don't know why they're different! You are such a stickler for details!”), the jury deadlocked on the wrongful termination cause of action and a mistrial was declared. The court denied a motion for a directed verdict brought by Touchstone, which argued that Sheridan’s employment had not been terminated but, rather, that Touchstone had simply elected not to exercise its option to renew her contract. In Touchstone Television Productions v. Superior Court, the court of appeal issued a writ of mandate compelling the trial court to grant Touchstone’s motion, holding that the company’s decision not to renew the contract was not a termination, and that Sheridan could not maintain a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy because “a decision not to renew a contract set to expire is not actionable in tort.” In other words, there is no cause of action for “tortious nonrenewal of an employment contract in violation of public policy.”

The writ may not end the matter, however, as the court’s order included a directive permitting Sheridan to amend her complaint to allege a claim under California Labor Code § 6310. Such a claim, assuming it were ultimately supported by the facts of the case, would be maintained on the basis that Touchstone retaliated against Sheridan for her complaints about the “unsafe working conditions” posed by Cherry’s alleged conduct. Based on documents filed by Sheridan in recent days, it appears she intends to pursue a Section 6310 claim.