The Thomas Gibson Case: Three Lessons for Non-Celebrities
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 show’s 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 employer’s 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 employment relationship.
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 don’t. 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 Valuable Employee
If it is true that there was a previous physical altercation between Mr. Gibson and an assistant director, why didn’t 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 out—namely, that Mr. Gibson was arguably the biggest star of a popular television series. This fact must have weighed heavily on the minds of the show’s 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 employer’s 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. Specifically, 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 (480) 378-2400.
This 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.
 A.R.S. § 23-1501(A)(2)