Last week, the press reported that Current TV and Al Gore fired Keith Olbermann. On March 30, Current TV stated that it released Olbermann because he no longer represented the channel’s values. Olbermann experienced quite a bit of tension during his tenure with Current TV. Among other things, Current TV was disappointed that Olbermann decided not to participate in the coverage of the Republican primaries.
It did not take long for Olbermann to file a lawsuit against Current TV for breach of contract. An excerpt of the Olbermann lawsuit states:
“Current’s sudden and public termination of Olbermann was the latest in a series of increasingly erratic and unprofessional actions undertaken by Current’s senior management,”
Olbermann also included the following allegations in his complaint:
— broadcasting ads containing Keith’s image without his consent
— using guest hosts for “Countdown” without Keith’s approval
— refusing to give Keith editorial control over special election coverage
— disclosing the confidential terms of his contract
— linking Keith’s name and goodwill with corporate endorsements without his consent
— disparaging Keith publicly
— refusing Keith’s request to stream segments from his show on his website
— refusing to invest resources in the show
While Olbermann was quick to file his lawsuit against Current TV, his former employer was just as quick in filing a counter-suit. Current TV is seeking a declaratory judgment stating that Olbermann’s lawsuit is frivolous and should be dismissed. Current TV points to an interview that Olbermann gave on the David Letterman show. On the Letterman show, Olbermann stated that he “screwed up” and it was his fault.
We cannot determine who will prevail in this case reading newspaper articles and gossip columns. I have to say, a personality like Olbermann going after the former vice-president does make for entertaining discussion. If this case goes before the judge, the critical piece of evidence is Olbermann’s employment contract.
In reviewing the contract, the obvious factor to consider is the termination clause of the contract. In other words, under what circumstances could Current TV terminate Mr. Olbermann. In employment contracts, the standard is “just cause.” This definition by itself can be elusive, but in many cases the employee would have to do something really bad in order for a court to uphold the just cause standard. The just cause standard differs from at-will, which says an employer may terminate an employee for a good reason or a bad reason. Certainly, Olbermann’s attorneys would not have allowed him to sign a contract containing the “at-will” language. So in this case, we would have to look at the termination provisions or how the drafters defined “just cause” to determine whether the vice-president had a legal basis for releasing Keith Olbermann. No doubt his refusal to cover the Republican primaries was a big deal.
Additionally, looking at Olbermann’s other claims, such as the use of his image, guest hosts for Countdown, and editorial control, we should look at the language of the contract to determine whether there is merit to Olbermann’s claims.
In Florida, you will not find many employment contracts. These agreements are usually drafted for high ranking managers and executives. When such agreements are prepared the parties should be careful in drafting the “just cause” language to reduce the likelihood of being going to court should there be a need to end the employment relationship.
Personal Footnote: In putting together this post, I thought about locating a nice picture of Mr. Olbermann. Considering that he is suing the vice-president for $70 million, I decided that I could not afford to be brought into court.