Barger v. General Elec. Co., Civ. A. No. 83-0167-L.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Western District of Virginia)
Citation599 F. Supp. 1154
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 83-0167-L.
PartiesWayne L. BARGER, Plaintiff, v. GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY, Defendant.
Decision Date19 November 1984

599 F. Supp. 1154

Wayne L. BARGER, Plaintiff,

Civ. A. No. 83-0167-L.

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Lynchburg Division.

November 19, 1984.

599 F. Supp. 1155

Donald W. Huffman, Nate L. Adams, III, Bird, Kinder & Huffman, Roanoke, Va., for plaintiff.

Jay T. Swett, McGuire, Woods & Battle, Charlottesville, Va., Gary S. Marshall, McGuire, Woods & Battle, Richmond, Va., for defendant.


KISER, District Judge.

Wayne L. Barger, a former employee of the General Electric Company ("G.E."), has filed this action against G.E. for breach of an employment contract. Barger is a resident of Virginia. General Electric is a New York corporation doing business in Virginia and elsewhere. Jurisdiction is founded on diversity between the parties under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332 and 1391.

Barger alleges that the terms of his employment were governed by an employee relations manual and other policies and procedures. Barger was laid off from his job with G.E. in the fall of 1982. He claims that through this layoff and its subsequent acts G.E. violated the terms of his employment contract, breached the implied covenants of good faith and cooperation contained in that contract, and tortiously and wrongfully discharged him in retaliation for filing an employee grievance.

Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted. Since that time, the Plaintiff has twice amended his Complaint. Although Defendant has not filed a formal Motion for Summary Judgment, the Memoranda of Law submitted by both parties deal with evidence outside the pleadings. Therefore, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss will be treated by this Court as a Motion for Summary Judgment.

I. Statement of Facts

Barger began his employment with G.E. on September 9, 1959. At the time he was employed (but prior to starting work) Barger was given a copy of the General Electric Employees Handbook (the "Handbook"). The Handbook contains many of the policies and procedures of G.E. Some of these policies apply to all G.E. plants and are incorporated into collective bargaining agreements; other policies are local in nature. The policies in the Handbook are taken from the G.E. Management Relations Manual.

The Handbook is distributed to all new employees at the time they apply for work or at their initial orientation. Although the policies in the Handbook are enacted by the management of G.E., there is an Employee Handbook Committee which recommends changes to the Handbook. The provisions of the Handbook are periodically revised. The latest revision was in 1979.

The Handbook provisions concerning reductions in force have not been substantially changed since Barger was hired in 1959. When reductions in force occur, it is the expressed policy of G.E. that all employees with seniority can retrace their personal path of progress.

When there is a surplus of personnel in a classification, or a reduction in the working force, seniority with Lynchburg General Electric is the major factor determining who should be downgraded, laid off or transferred. If you are one of those affected, you will be given at least one week's notice or one week's pay (or a combination of days and pay equivalent
599 F. Supp. 1156
to one week) at your prevailing rate before downgrades or layoffs are made due to a reduction in forces.
If you have been promoted and your job is declared surplus, you are entitled to displace the shortest service employee in your current classification if your length of service permits. If not, you can then displace the shortest service employee in the next lower classification you have satisfactorily held (in other words, you may retrace your personal path of progress). Displacement of employees at the lowest classification is strictly by seniority and shift, providing that the employee is able to meet the requirements of the job assigned.
In most cases, seniority dates are the same as continuous service dates except in certain cases of broken service or prior employment at other G.E. locations.

General Electric Employee's Handbook at 16-17. If an employee's former position has been reclassified, the new position remains on the employee's path of progress. All of these procedures are detailed in the General Electric Management Relations Manual, Section 600-III.

When G.E. instituted a reduction in force in November of 1982, Barger held the position of Mechanical Technician. This position had a pay grade of LG-10 and a job code of 9509. Barger was in the Engineering Division. He was surplused from this position, and G.E. attempted to trace Barger's path of progress in order to find a job for which he was eligible under the layoff provisions of the Handbook.

There are three components to the job classification system at G.E. There is the title, such as a Mechanical Technician. Each position also has a pay grade rating. The "LG" rating refers to non-exempt salaried positions; an "LH" rating refers to hourly positions. The number following the LG or LH indicates the pay classification within the rating. The final component is a four-digit job classification code used for all employee records.

G.E. determined that Barger had seniority for an LH-21 Coil Winder Set-Up position, a job that Barger held in 1966. Barger was offered this position. Because this job was more than four grades below his current pay level, the Handbook provided an alternative to accepting the lower job. Barger could instead elect "voluntary lack of work" status which gave him recall rights for five years to any position in his path of progress. Barger chose this option and pursued company grievance procedures to challenge G.E.'s determination that this was the highest level position he could obtain.

Barger asserts that G.E. did not offer him a position that was within his path of progress and to which he was entitled under the terms of the Handbook. Barger held a position of Mechanical Technician, pay grade LG-09, from March, 1968 to 1971. His employee records show that the job classification for this position was 9599.

In 1969 there existed a position entitled LG-9½ Model Shop Technician, which carried the job classification number 9599. This position was subsequently re-evaluated and reclassified as an hourly position, LH-32 Model Maker, job classification number 4520. At the time of the reduction in force in 1981, there were three temporary LH-32 Model Maker positions open in the Engineering Division. These positions became permanent positions sometime after Barger was terminated.

There is no dispute that Barger is well-qualified for the LH-32 Model Maker position. His job as a Mechanical Technician involved substantially the same work as a Model Maker and required less supervision. G.E. contends, however, that Barger never held the LH-32 Model Maker or the LG-9½ Model Shop Technician positions and was, therefore, not entitled to recall as a Model Maker. G.E. points out that Barger's former position as a LG-09 Mechanical Technician was typically given a job classification of 9E99, and that the job description for a Model Maker is different from the job description for a Mechanical Technician. But G.E. cannot explain why Barger's employee records indicate that one of Barger's previous positions had the same job classification

599 F. Supp. 1157
number as the position that was reclassified as an LH-32 Model Maker

II. Summary Judgment

Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 summary judgment is to be granted only if there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The moving party bears the burden of proof on these issues. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 90 S.Ct. 1598, 26 L.Ed.2d 142 (1970). The Court must draw inferences most favorable to the party opposing the motion, United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 82 S.Ct. 993, 8 L.Ed.2d 176 (1962), and the opposing party is to be given the benefit of all favorable legal theories invoked by the evidence. Charbonnages de France v. Smith, 597 F.2d 406 (4th Cir.1979). See West v. Costen, 558 F.Supp. 564 (W.D.Va. 1983).

G.E. bases its Motion for Summary Judgment on two distinct grounds. G.E. contends that there is no enforceable contract of employment between Barger and G.E. on which an action for breach of contract may be brought. Assuming that Barger does have an employment contract, G.E. argues that the reduction in force policy was properly followed.

This latter contention is easily disposed of. There is a clear conflict in the evidence of whether Barger once held an LG-9½ Model Shop Technician position which was later reclassified as an LH-32 Model Maker. G.E. has been unable to explain the apparent discrepancies in Barger's employee records. Barger is thus entitled, for the purposes of summary judgment, to the inference that he once held the position of Model Shop Technician. G.E. has admitted that there were openings for LH-32 Model Makers when Barger was laid off, that there have been subsequent openings for Model Makers in Barger's department, and that Barger has not been offered these positions. Barger thus presents a colorable claim that the reduction in force policy was not followed in his case.

G.E.'s other argument presents a more complex question. In order to recover Barger must also establish that he has an employment contract with G.E. and that the provisions of the Handbook constitute the enforceable terms of that contract. Barger readily concedes that no employment contract exists which specifies a fixed duration for employment. He admits that there was never a written, signed employment agreement, negotiated in advance, which sets out all the terms of his contract. The employees at the Lynchburg plant are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and management does not individually negotiate contracts with each employee. Barger was hired by...

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