Oregon high court rejects wrongful discharge claim

The Oregon Supreme Court Thursday rejected a wrongful discharge claim by a veteran sales manager who was fired from a Medford car dealership.

Kevin Lamson, a sales manager for 15 years, said he was let go after he told his bosses he wanted no part of a sales campaign he believed included deceptive ads and sales practices.

Lamson sued Crater Lake Motors in Medford and won in trial court. But the Oregon Supreme Court, in a unanimous vote, reversed the decision, saying there was no evidence Lamson had been ordered to violate any ethical standard or law.

Lamson had refused to participate in a weeklong sales event by an outside company the dealership hired to boost used car sales.

Lamson had taken part in a previous sales event managed by Real Performance Marketing and told his bosses he observed tactics he believed to be unethical and illegal, including "payment packing" by inflating monthly payments with life insurance and service contracts without the customer's knowledge.

He said he met with the owner of Crater Lake Motors, Jim Coleman, and wrote letters to Coleman warning him about Real Performance Marketing and what he viewed as "consistent misrepresentation, fraudulent action, deceit, lying, immoral conduct, unethical conduct and illegal actions."

Coleman responded with a letter saying "the present concern is not with the business operations of Crater Lake Motors, but rather with your duties as an employee."

In an opinion by Justice W. Michael Gillette, the Supreme Court sided with Coleman and the dealership, saying that an internal whistle-blower complaint about business practices that pose no threat to public health or safety is not protected.

Gillette wrote that Lamson's complaint "did not involve interests of sufficient public importance to support a claim that plaintiff (Lamson) was discharged for fulfilling an important societal obligation." Gillette cited a previous case involving an employer who fired a woman because she reported for jury duty, saying that was clearly wrongful discharge because "the jury system would be adversely affected."

In Lamson's case, however, Gillette wrote "there is nothing in the record that suggests that plaintiff's (Lamson's) particular act — refusing to report to work because unlawful trade practices might occur there — enjoys high social value." The court did note there was a "strong public interest" in preventing the kinds of sales tactics Lamson described, but said the dealership never asked him to do anything unlawful or unethical.

The court suggested that if Lamson had concerns about whether Real Performance Marketing's practices were legal, he could have filed a complaint with the Oregon Attorney General, who has the authority to intervene.

"It wasn't about money; it was about doing the right thing," Lamson said Thursday. "I would do it all over again."

Lamson is now executive director of Hearts With A Mission, a Medford nonprofit organization he founded to provide emergency shelter for homeless youths, ages 10 to 17. The shelter is scheduled to open in September.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.

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