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Fraser v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.

December 10, 2003


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 98-cv-06726) District Judge: Honorable Anita B. Brody

Before: Sloviter, Ambro and Becker, Circuit Judges

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambro, Circuit Judge


Argued June 23, 2003


Richard Fraser, an independent insurance agent for Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, was terminated by Nationwide as an agent. We decide whether: he has stated a viable claim for wrongful termination under Pennsylvania law; he is entitled to damages under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and parallel Pennsylvania law for Nationwide's alleged unauthorized access to his e-mail account; an Agents' Review Board process reviewing his termination was properly conducted; a forfeiture-forcompetition provision in his agency agreement is enforceable; and the District Court abused its discretion in refusing to allow Fraser to amend his complaint and in not sanctioning Nationwide for alleged discovery violations. We affirm the District Court on all but the forfeiture-forcompetition and discovery violations issues. As to the former, we remand to the District Court for reconsideration in light of new caselaw from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. We also remand Fraser's discovery sanctions claim, which the District Court did not address.

I. Background

This dispute stems from Nationwide's September 2, 1998 termination of Fraser's Agent's Agreement (the "Agreement"). It provided that Fraser sell insurance policies as an independent contractor for Nationwide on an exclusive basis. The relationship was terminable at will by either party.

The parties disagree on the reason for Fraser's termination. Fraser argues Nationwide terminated him because he filed complaints with the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office regarding Nationwide's allegedly illegal conduct, including its discriminatory refusal to write car insurance for unmarried and new drivers.*fn1 Fraser also contends that he was terminated for criticizing Nationwide while acting as an officer of the Nationwide Insurance Independent Contractors Association (the "Contractors Association") and for attempting to obtain the passage of legislation in Pennsylvania to ensure that independent insurance agents could be terminated only for "just cause."

Nationwide argues, however, that it terminated Fraser because he was disloyal. It points out that Fraser drafted a letter to two competitors — Erie Insurance Company ("Erie") and Zurich American Insurance ("Zurich") — expressing Contractors Association members' dissatisfaction with Nationwide and seeking to determine whether Erie and Zurich would be interested in acquiring the policyholders of the agents in the Contractors Association. Fraser claims that the letters only were drafted to get Nationwide's attention and were not sent. (Were the letters sent, however, they would constitute a violation of the "exclusive representation" provision of Fraser's Agreement with Nationwide.)

When Nationwide learned about these letters, it claims that it became concerned that Fraser might also be revealing company secrets to its competitors. It therefore searched its main file server — on which all of Fraser's email was lodged — for any e-mail to or from Fraser that showed similar improper behavior.*fn2 Nationwide's general counsel testified that the e-mail search confirmed Fraser's disloyalty. Therefore, on the basis of the two letters and the e-mail search, Nationwide terminated Fraser's Agreement. It is this search of his e-mail that gives rise to Fraser's claim for damages under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 ("ECPA"), 18 U.S.C. § 2510, et seq., and a parallel Pennsylvania statute, 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5702, et seq.

After Nationwide terminated Fraser in September 1998, he filed an appeal with the Agents' Administrative Review Board (the "Board"). Fraser's Agreement with Nationwide provides that "the Agent shall have access to the Agents' Administrative Review Board, and its procedures, as it may exist from time to time." The Agreement did not, however, specify any particular procedures that the Board would follow, nor did it guarantee the availability of Board review. Board procedures were laid out in the agents' Compensation and Security Handbook (the "Handbook"), which stated explicitly that the procedures were not part of the Agreement between an agent and Nationwide. In considering Fraser's case, the Board split 2-2, and Nationwide's employee, acting as the tiebreaker, affirmed Fraser's termination. Fraser argues that the review process was a "sham" and contends that Nationwide conducted the review process in bad faith.

Within a year of his termination, Fraser went to work for a competitor of Nationwide, thereby triggering a "forfeiturefor-competition" provision in his Agreement. That provision specifies that an agent will forfeit deferred compensation by becoming employed by another insurance business within a twenty-five mile radius within one year of cancellation of the agent's Agreement. Fraser contends that, because of the provision, he forfeited several hundred thousand dollars of deferred compensation.*fn3 He argues that the provision is invalid under Pennsylvania law because it is unduly restrictive.

As a result of these events, Fraser filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to contest: (1) his termination; (2) the alleged violation of his privacy rights under the ECPA and parallel Pennsylvania statute; (3) the Board's review procedure; and (4) the forfeiture-for-competition provision in his Agreement. Events during litigation in the District Court also have spawned issues on appeal. First, Fraser alleges that Nationwide committed numerous discovery violations. He claims that "[i]t is no hyperbole to state that in this case, no discovery was received from Nationwide without a court order compelling discovery, no court order compelling discovery from Nationwide went unviolated and more than one Nationwide witness was less than candid." On this basis, Fraser seeks discovery sanctions against Nationwide. Second, the District Court denied Fraser leave to amend his complaint a third time to add two more state-law causes of action: conversion and invasion of privacy. The Court believed ...

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