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McPherson v. Fishing Company of Alaska

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1

May 30, 2017

MICHAEL MCPHERSON, Appellant,
v.
FISHING COMPANY OF ALASKA, Respondent.

          Leach, J.

         Michael McPherson appeals the trial court's summary judgment dismissal of his lawsuit against his former employer, Fishing Company of Alaska. McPherson claims that the "period of effectiveness" term in his employment contract prohibited Fishing Company from firing him without cause during that period. Because McPherson's contract contained an at-will employment provision and the statute requiring a period of effectiveness does not change the historical rule of at-will employment in maritime contracts, we affirm.

         FACTS

         Michael McPherson signed an "Employment At-Will Contract" with Fishing Company of Alaska in September 2015. Fishing Company agreed to pay McPherson $200 per day as an assistant engineer on a Fishing Company vessel. The contract also said that Fishing Company employed McPherson at will and could "terminate [him] at any time, with or without notice and with or without cause."[1] The contract period was 90 days. Fishing Company fired McPherson 18 days in.

         McPherson sued, alleging Fishing Company wrongfully fired him.[2] He asked for lost wages and other relief, asserting that because 46 U.S.C. § 10601 requires a fishing agreement to include a "period of effectiveness, " he could not be fired without cause during that period.

         The parties filed cross motions for partial summary judgment. The trial court granted Fishing Company's motion. The trial court then entered a final judgment in favor of Fishing Company. McPherson appeals.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         We review an order granting summary judgment de novo, making the same inquiry as the trial court.[3] We will affirm summary judgment where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.[4]

         ANALYSIS

         When deciding an admiralty or maritime case, this court must follow substantive maritime statutes and common law and may not order a remedy that harms the uniformity of that law.[5] A court interpreting a maritime contract must apply federal maritime law.[6]

         Legislation favoring seamen is "largely remedial and calls for liberal interpretation in favor of the seamen."[7] Since 1813, a federal statute has required fishing agreements to be in writing.[8] This ensures that seamen "have a clear and enforceable written commitment defining the consideration for which they risk their life at sea"[9] and protecting them "'from the duress, coercion, or deception that might result if masters were permitted to ship them out to sea without first providing written articles.'"[10]

         Throughout this long history of written maritime employment contracts, courts have held that "a seaman is an employee-at-will and may be discharged for any or no reason."[11] McPherson acknowledges this history but claims that Congress changed this rule with a 1988 amendment to 46 U.S.C. § 10601.

         This statute currently provides, §10601. Fishing agreements

(a) Before proceeding on a voyage, the owner, charterer, or managing operator, or a representative thereof, including the master or individual in charge, of a fishing vessel, fish processing vessel, or fish tender vessel shall make a fishing agreement in writing with each seaman employed on board if the vessel is-
(1) at least 20 gross tons as measured under section 14502 of this title, or an alternate tonnage measured under section 14302 of this title as prescribed by the Secretary ...

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