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No. 34748 - Danny L. Benson v. AJR, Inc. A West Virginia Corporation, and John M. Rhodes
Benjamin, J., concurring:
It is often said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. How apt this phrase
seems to sometimes be when applied to judicial decisions. That it applies so often in a time
when group after group publicly complain that judges should just follow the law is ironic
since the same groups seem to have little hesitancy to publicly judge judges based not on the
method and legal accuracy of what the court actually did, but rather on whether the result is
deemed good (i.e., pro-business, pro-labor, pro-Democrat, pro-Republican, pro-this group,
pro-that group) or bad (i.e., anti-business, anti-labor, anti-Democrat, anti-Republican, anti-
this group, anti-that group). When judges must rely on the transparency of their decisions
for their defense, the process of partisanship by this group or that becomes all the more
I sense this is a case which lends itself to such partisanship. Benson is not a
likable plaintiff. However, what the Defendants essentially want this Court to do is to save
them from a lawful business contract into which they freely and consciously entered. In
other words, the Defendants seek this Court to ignore the rule of law and, despite their bad
purchase deal, to save them from themselves despite the rule of law.
AJR, Inc., manufactured and welded truck beds. It was a family concern. In
1997, John Rhodes sought to purchase AJR. As part of the deal, Rhodes entered into a
legally binding guaranteed employment agreement with Danny Benson, a family member.
Such arrangements are not uncommon when family concerns are purchased. Family
members often wish to ensure that other family members are guaranteed continued
employment for a period of time. Both sides had a full and adequate opportunity to negotiate
the terms of the guaranteed employment agreement here. In other words, no one had a gun
to his head.
In retrospect, the agreement which Rhodes made seems amazingly narrow.
However, it is not for this Court to look beyond the contract since it was freely entered into.
Benson was guaranteed eight additional years of employment or the equivalent in pay. He
could be terminated with only a one day notice for any reason, though the obligation to pay
remained absent Benson doing one of three specific things. From a business sense, the eight
years of employment was therefore essentially already factored into the purchase price of
AJR. Under the terms of the employment contract, AJR could avoid its binding obligation
to pay Benson only if one of three specific things happened: Benson was convicted of a
felony (he was not); Benson voluntarily terminated his employment (he did not), or Benson
engaged in dishonesty.
When Benson was terminated, the Reason for Termination was listed as
Tested Positive for Cocaine. He had never made any representation whether he used or
did not use cocaine, though the employer no doubt reasonably assumed he did not. Initially,
the Circuit Court of Wood County granted summary judgment, finding Benson's actions to
have been dishonest as a matter of law. In 2004, this Court reversed the summary
judgment, concluding that the term dishonesty and whether Benson's termination was
because of dishonesty was a question of fact for a jury. The Court noted that the employer
neglected to make any reference to dishonesty on its Reason for Termination. See Benson v. AJR, Inc. (Benson I), 215 W.Va. 324, 599 S.E.2d 747 (2004).
After a trial, a special verdict form was given to the jury. The special verdict
form demonstrated that Benson was not terminated for dishonesty, but rather for drug use.
Certainly, one can conclude that Benson should have been terminated. The company had that
right and it exercised that right. What the company did not have the right to do, however,
was to renegotiate the terms of the contracts surrounding the purchase of AJR, Inc., or,
essentially, to have this Court do it for them.
Cases such as these are not easy. However, as with the other judges who have
reviewed this matter, I must conclude that the contract should be given effect as written and
as agreed to. To do otherwise and render a decision of a feel good or politically correct
nature would be to engage in situational decision-making, which leads to instability within
the legal system and, consequently, a lack of stability and predictability in our state. I do not
believe there is a legal basis to overrule the findings of the jury. I therefore concur with the