Court: Jury to hear promised job lawsuit

Ore. man seeks $500,000 from auto dealership

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MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) -- The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that a jury should decide whether a Medford sales associate is entitled to compensation from an employer who he says promised him a job and then denied it.

Michael Cocchiara worked at a Lithia Motors dealership for eight years until suffering a heart attack in 2004. Doctors told him to decrease his stress and work fewer hours, said his attorney G. Jefferson Campbell.

Cocchiara discussed the situation with his sales manager while pursuing other employment options. When Cocchiara got an offer to be a sales representative for the Mail Tribune newspaper, 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,'" Campbell said. The lawyer said the Lithia offered his client a "corporate job" that would satisfy his health needs. But the company never followed through, and the Mail Tribune job was filled when Cocchiara later tried to accept it.

Lithia attorney Ryan Vanderhoof said his clients deny Cocchiara's allegations, and he characterized last week's Supreme Court ruling as "just a procedural victory."

The high court ruling reverses the decisions of a Jackson County circuit judge and the Oregon Court of Appeals.

Vanderhoof successfully argued before those courts that Cocchiara's case be thrown out because Oregon law allows employers to hire or fire employees "at will" in most cases. Because the alleged offer from Lithia entailed "an at-will position," Cocchiara could have been terminated on his first day, Vanderhoof argued.

The unanimous Supreme Court opinion, written by Chief Justice Thomas A. Balmer, determined the legal right to fire an employee does not carry with it a "conclusive presumption that the employer will exercise that right."

Cocchiara has the right to have a jury determine whether he has a valid claim, Balmer wrote, 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."

The lawsuit asks for economic and noneconomic damages that could tally $500,000, Campbell said.