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Wheatley v. Guardian Life Insurance Company of America

September 28, 2007

C. DONALD WHEATLEY AND FREDERICK G. LEVIN, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
THE GUARDIAN LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY OF AMERICA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jerome B. Simandle

OPINION

SIMANDLE, District Judge

This case comes before the Court on the Defendants' motion for summary judgment [Docket Item No. 4] and Plaintiffs' motion for continuance under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(f). [Docket Item No. 7.] The Court has reviewed the parties' submissions and for the reasons explained below, shall find that summary judgment is premature with regard to Plaintiffs' breach of contract claim (Count One), and Defendants' motion will be denied without prejudice with respect thereto pending further discovery, and that summary judgment will be granted to Defendants with regard to Plaintiffs' claims for unreasonable restraint of trade (Count Two), constructive discharge (Count Three), concert of action (Count Four), and age discrimination (Counts Five to Seven), for the reasons explained below.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Facts

Plaintiffs C. Donald Wheatley and Frederick G. Levin ("Plaintiffs") are field representatives of Defendants Guardian Life Insurance Company of America and the Guardian Insurance & Annuity Company, Inc. (collectively "Guardian"). (Complaint at ¶ 13.) Plaintiffs were initially assigned to the offices of Career Development Manager Sid Friedman in Philadelphia, where they received approximately 70% of the commissions earned on sales of financial/investment products ("investment commissions") and 55% of the commissions earned on the sale of life insurance products ("insurance commissions"). (Id. at ¶ 14.) Additionally, Plaintiffs received 30 to 35% of the life insurance premium commissions as expense reimbursement. (Id.)

In or around January 2006, Plaintiffs were given the option to relocate to the offices of another Career Development Manager. (Id. at ¶ 16.) Plaintiffs elected to work out of the Marlton, New Jersey office. (Id. at ¶¶ 16-17.)

On or about October 4, 2006, Plaintiffs received a correspondence from Dennis Kelleher, the Vice President and Regional Sales Director for Defendant Guardian, informing them that effective October 31, 2006, the Marlton office would be closed. (Id. at ¶ 18.) The correspondence from Mr. Kelleher stated that in order to remain a Guardian Field Representative, Plaintiffs must affiliate with the Philadelphia 1R Agency in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania (the "Blue Bell Agency"), managed by Defendant Daniel J. Linehan. (Id.) Plaintiffs were informed that, if Plaintiffs did not report to Blue Bell Agency on November 1, 2006 their Field Representative contracts would terminate. (Id.)

Plaintiffs claim that such demands were inconsistent with Plaintiffs' interpretation of the Field Representative agreement and in conflict with Defendants' previous actions. (Id. at ¶¶ 20-21.) Specifically, in the past, Defendants have permitted Field Representatives to choose from roughly three agencies with whom they could affiliate (id. at ¶ 21), and they would be permitted to switch agencies for any reasons (id. at ¶ 24). According to Plaintiffs, Defendants' correspondence in effect ordered Plaintiffs to relocate to an inconvenient office location*fn1 or suffer loss of all of their income and renewal commissions,*fn2 as well as relinquishment of seven years worth of client lists, customers and goodwill. (Id. at ¶¶ 29, 32.) Moreover, Plaintiffs would no longer receive the 35% insurance product expense reimbursement and would receive no greater than 50% of their investment commissions versus the 70% they previously received. (Id. at ¶ 30.) Defendants refused to release Plaintiffs from the Blue Bell Agency assignment. (Id. at ¶ 31.)

B. Procedural History

Plaintiffs filed their Complaint on October 31, 2006 alleging breach of contract, restriction of trade, constructive discharge, concert of action, and age discrimination. On January 16, 2007, before the parties engaged in any discovery, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment [Docket Item No. 4]. In opposition, Plaintiffs filed a Rule 56(f) motion, requesting a continuance. Defendants timely replied. The Court has considered all of these submissions without oral argument, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 78.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate when the materials of record "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A dispute is "genuine" if "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable rule of law. Id. Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment. Id.

In deciding whether there is a disputed issue of material fact, a court must view the evidence in favor of the non-moving party by extending any reasonable favorable inference to that party; in other words, "the nonmoving party's evidence 'is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [that party's] favor.'" Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 552 (1999) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)). The threshold inquiry is whether there are "any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party." Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 250; Brewer v. Quaker State Oil Ref. Corp., 72 F.3d 326, 329-30 (3d Cir. 1995). The moving party always bears the initial burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists, regardless of which party would have the burden of persuasion at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Country Floors v. P'ship of Gepner and Ford, 930 F.2d 1056, 1061-63 (3d Cir. 1991).

III. DISCUSSION

The Court will first address Plaintiffs' Rule 56(f) affidavit for continuance, which argues that, because this Court has not conducted a Rule 16 scheduling conference and has not set discovery deadlines, summary judgment is premature. (Pls.' Rule 56(f) Aff. at ¶ 4.) Plaintiffs contended that they could not "adequately present facts and testimony to contradict Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment without discovery." (Id. at ¶ 3.)

Rule 56 does not require that discovery take place in all cases before summary judgment can be granted. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) ("A party seeking to recover upon a claim . . . may, at any time after the expiration of 20 days from the commencement of the action . . . move . . . for a summary judgment.")(Emphasis added). Moreover, "the fact that discovery is not complete -- indeed has not begun -- need not defeat [a motion for summary judgment]." Am. Nurses' Ass'n. v. Illinois, 783 F.2d 716, 729 (7th Cir. 1986). Under Rule 56(f), however, a party may oppose a motion for summary judgment by ...


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