In August 2016, actor Thomas Gibson was first suspended, and later fired from his role as Agent Aaron Hotchner on the CBS television series Criminal Minds. CNN reported that Gibson
kicked one of the shows writers after the two got into a disagreement over a
script, and that Gibson was involved in a prior altercation with a Criminal Minds assistant director and
was counseled for anger management.
Shortly after he was fired, news outlets reported that he had hired a team of veteran
entertainment lawyers to represent him in connection with his firing.
At first glance, it seems odd that someone who reportedly has
a history of workplace altercations would even think about pursuing legal
action after being fired for kicking a coworker. For the vast majority of
employees, there would be literally no chance of succeeding on a wrongful
termination case under these circumstances, yet Mr. Gibson has hired a team of
lawyers to protect his rights in this case. So why is this case different?
Mr. Gibson Is A Contract Employee, Not An At-Will Employee
The vast majority of employees are considered at-will
employees, which means that the employer may terminate the employee for almost
any reason, or for no reason at all. Generally, the only limitations on the
employers right to terminate an at-will employee is that the employer may
not terminate the employer for an illegal reason, such as discrimination or
retaliation, nor may it terminate an employee who has signed a contract for a
specific period of time, unless there is good cause for doing so, which will
usually be defined in the contract itself.
In Arizona, the at-will nature of employment is set forth
in the Employment Protection Act, which states:
The employment relationship is severable at the pleasure of either the
employee or the employer, unless both the employee and the employer have signed
a written contract to the contrary setting forth that the employment
relationship shall remain in effect for a specified duration of time or
otherwise expressly restricting the right of either party to terminate the
So what can be learned from the Thomas Gibson case? First, he
almost certainly was employed under a contract of employment, which means his
employer could not have simply fired him because it wanted to. Instead, the
fact that he was fired almost certainly means that his employer determined that
he had violated the terms of the contract. If his contract required him to refrain
from physical contact with any of the crew or cast (which would be reasonable
in the case of an employee who has had such issues before), then a kicking
incident would have violated the contract, and would constitute good cause for
terminating his employment.
The take-away for normal, non-celebrity employees is that those
who are working under an employment contract for a specific period of time have
greater protections than those who dont. Although such an employment contract
is relatively rare (they are most commonly used for actors, athletes, and
school teachers), employers will not simply be able to fire such employees
without having a good reason for doing so.
Mr. Gibson Likely Kept His Job As Long As He Did Because He Was A
If it is true that there was a previous physical altercation
between Mr. Gibson and an assistant director, why didnt his employers fire him
then? Although it is impossible for anyone who was not involved in the
situation to know exactly what happened or exactly what went into the decision
at that time, one glaring fact stands outnamely, that Mr. Gibson was arguably the
biggest star of a popular television series. This fact must have weighed
heavily on the minds of the shows producers, who undoubtedly wanted to keep a
good thing going. By not firing Mr. Gibson, the producers did exactly that, and
Criminal Minds has remained a
top-rated television drama for several more years.
The lesson for non-celebrity employees is that those who are
valuable to their employer are less likely to be fired. Although an employer is
allowed to fire its at-will employees without having a good reason, most
employers will be most focused on the bottom line, and will most often only
fire an employee if there is a good reason to do so. Top managers, creative
personnel, and those who bring in business to the employer will undoubtedly be
given the benefit of the doubt more often than marginal employees who do little
to enhance their employers bottom line. Like the producers of Criminal Minds, most employers will want
to keep a good thing going, and an employee who is seen as a valuable part of
that good thing is more likely to keep her job.
Mr. Gibson May Be Able To Win Without Ever Actually Going To Court
Even if Mr. Gibson and his lawyers have doubts about their
ability to win this case if it were to go to court, they may be able to exert
some leverage just by keeping the case going in the public eye. There is
actually some precedent for this with another actor who was fired from a CBS
show following a period of questionable behavior. Specfically, in 2011, Charlie
Sheen was canned from the sitcom Two and
a Half Men following his alleged battle with substance abuse and a highly
public meltdown. In response, Sheen . . . [sued] for $100 million . . . [and
the producers] . . . eventually settled with Sheen for an undisclosed amount in
order to end the suit.
Although the motivations for Hollywood producers to settle an
employment dispute will undoubtedly differ from those of most employers, the
fact is that involvement in the legal system is something that most employers
will seek to avoid. It is a drain on finances, energy and productivity, and if
there is any question at all about how the case will be decided if it goes through
the full legal process (and there always is), then an employer may prefer to
settle with the terminated employee to obtain certainty and finality. This is
true whether the employee is a celebrity actor or an entry-level worker at a
local small business.
The case of a famous actor fired amid allegations of bad
behavior may seem far removed from the lives of most people. It can, however,
provide valuable insights into how everyday employees can put themselves in the
best position with their employers.
Rex A. Christensen
practices employment discrimination law in Gilbert, Arizona.
He can be reached at
article does not constitute, and should not be considered, legal advice, and
you should consult with an attorney regarding your own specific legal matters.
The existence of this article or your reading of it does not create an
attorney-client relationship. Neither the Christensen Law Firm nor any of its
attorneys may represent you without first establishing that doing so will not
create a conflict of interest.
Rex A. Christensen is licensed to practice law in Arizona only.