Darden v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., No. 85-1623

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtMURNAGHAN
Citation796 F.2d 701
PartiesRobert T. DARDEN, Appellant, v. NATIONWIDE MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Nationwide Mutual Fire Insurance Company and Nationwide Life Insurance Company, Appellees.
Docket NumberNo. 85-1623
Decision Date28 August 1986

Page 701

796 F.2d 701
Robert T. DARDEN, Appellant,
v.
NATIONWIDE MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Nationwide Mutual Fire
Insurance Company and Nationwide Life Insurance
Company, Appellees.
No. 85-1623.
United States Court of Appeals,
Fourth Circuit.
Argued Dec. 3, 1985.
Decided July 15, 1986.
Rehearing and Rehearing En Banc Denied Aug. 28, 1986.

Page 702

Marion G. Follin, III (Smith, Patterson, Follin, Curtis, James & Harkavy, on brief) for appellant.

Walker Y. Worth, Jr. (Russ, Worth & Cheatwood, on brief), and Craig G. Dalton, Jr. (Moore, Ragsdale, Liggerr, Ray & Foley, P.A., on brief), for appellees.

Before MURNAGHAN, SPROUSE and SNEEDEN, * Circuit Judges.

MURNAGHAN, Circuit Judge:

Robert Darden appeals from the decision of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina granting summary judgment for defendant Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company on Darden's claim for retirement benefits on the basis of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. Sec. 1001, et seq.

I.

From 1962 until November 1980, Darden acted as an insurance agent for Nationwide Insurance Company in Fayetteville, North Carolina. During that period, Darden represented Nationwide exclusively. While Darden enjoyed a substantial degree of freedom to operate his agency as he chose, his freedom was limited by a number of requirements imposed by Nationwide. Darden was compensated through commissions, rather than through a fixed salary.

The relationship between Darden and Nationwide was governed by a series of eight successive agency contracts. Each of the agency contracts provided for Darden's participation in a retirement and deferred compensation plan for insurance agents referred to as the "Agent's Security Compensation Plan." The Agent's Security Compensation Plan consisted of two programs

Page 703

known as the "Deferred Compensation Incentive Credit Plan" and the "Extended Earnings Plan." Under the Deferred Compensation Incentive Credit Plan, Nationwide maintained a retirement account for Darden and annually credited to that account a sum based on Darden's earnings from original and renewal fees for insurance policies. Under the Extended Earnings Plan, Nationwide agreed to pay Darden, upon his retirement, termination, death or disability, a sum equal to his earnings from renewal fees over the prior twelve months.

The agency agreements also provided that Nationwide's obligation to pay benefits under the Agent's Security Compensation Plan would terminate if a former agent engaged in the fire, casualty, health, or life insurance business, in competition with Nationwide, within one year of the cancellation of the agent's agreement with Nationwide and within a twenty-five mile radius of the former business location of the agent. Nationwide's obligation would also cease if the former agent, at any time after the cancellation of his agency agreement with Nationwide, induced a Nationwide policyholder to cancel an insurance contract with Nationwide. The agency agreements between Nationwide and Darden provided further that either party had the right to cancel the agreement at any time after written notice.

Nationwide exercised its right to terminate the agreement on November 20, 1980. One month following the termination of the agreement, Darden opened a new business as an independent insurance agent, representing various competitors of Nationwide. He operated the new business at the same location he had previously used as a Nationwide agent. Nationwide then notified Darden that it would not pay him any of the benefits to which he otherwise would have been entitled under the Agent's Security Compensation Plan.

The most recent statement which Darden had received prior to his termination indicated that as of December 31, 1979, he had accumulated $28,664.00 in the Deferred Compensation Plan and $65,706.00 in the Extended Earnings Plan. Under the election which Darden had on file with Nationwide at the time of his termination, he was entitled to approximately $490.00 per month for the remainder of his life, to begin within sixty days after his termination, under the Extended Earnings Plan. He was also entitled to approximately $120.00 per month for the remainder of his life, to begin at age 50, under the Deferred Compensation Incentive Plan. At his termination in 1980, he was 46 years of age.

Darden filed the present action on November 8, 1983, seeking to benefit from the terms of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. Sec. 1001 et seq. Under ERISA, an employee's right to receive retirement benefits from an employer-sponsored retirement plan must vest, thereby becoming nonforfeitable, after a period of time to be determined according to one of three alternative methods. 29 U.S.C. Sec. 1053(a). 1 Darden based his claim to relief on Sec. 502(a) of the Act, 29 U.S.C. Sec. 1132(a), which provides that a participant in or a beneficiary of an employee retirement income security plan may bring

Page 704

a civil action to enforce the provisions of the Act and to recover benefits due to him. Darden accordingly sought to enforce the Act's nonforfeitability requirements and to recover the benefits claimed to be due to him under the provisions of Nationwide's Agent's Security Compensation Plan.

Following discovery, both parties moved for summary judgment. The matter was referred to a magistrate, who recommended that summary judgment be granted for Darden. The district court rejected the magistrate's recommendation and granted summary judgment for Nationwide on the ground that Darden did not qualify as an employee within the scope of ERISA and therefore had no enforceable rights against Nationwide derived from that Act. Darden now appeals from the district court's decision.

II.

To maintain an action based on Sec. 502(a) of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. Sec. 1132(a), 2 Darden must qualify as a "participant" in an employee benefit plan. 3 The Act defines a "participant" as "any employee or former employee of an employer ... who is or may become eligible to receive a benefit of any type from an employee benefit plan which covers employees of such employer..." 29 U.S.C. Sec. 1002(7). Thus, Darden's right to pursue an ERISA-based claim against Nationwide depends upon whether he may properly be treated as an "employee" for the purposes of ERISA, or whether he falls into the independent contractor category.

The statute itself provides little guidance concerning the interpretation to be given the term "employee" in the ERISA context. "Employee" is defined simply as "any individual employed by an employer." 29 U.S.C. Sec. 1002(6). Perhaps as a result of this lack of explicit statutory guidance, the few courts that have considered the question have looked to definitions of the employer-employee relationship developed in other areas of law.

One such approach involves the application of the traditional common-law standard for identifying the relationship of master and servant. See Short v. Central States Pension Fund, 729 F.2d 567 (8th Cir.1984); Richardson v. Central States Pension Fund, 645 F.2d 660 (8th Cir.1981); Wardle v. Central States Pension Fund, 627 F.2d 820 (7th Cir.1980), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 1112, 101 S.Ct. 922, 66 L.Ed.2d 841 (1981). 4 The principal element of the common-law

Page 705

standard is the extent of one party's right to direct and control the performance of the other. Short v. Central States Pension Fund, 729 F.2d 567, 572 (8th Cir.1984); Restatement (Second) of Agency Sec. 220 (1957); Prosser and Keeton on Torts, Sec. 70 at 501 (5th ed. 1984). Many factors are considered in determining whether there is such a right to control, including the degree of one party's supervision of the details of the other's works; whether the two parties are engaged in distinct businesses or occupations; who supplies the place and instrumentalities of the work; the duration of the relationship between the parties; the method of payment; and other factors. 5

Under such traditional common law principles, Darden most probably would not qualify as an employee. Darden was relatively free to run his business as he chose. Darden was able to exercise his independent judgment as to the time, place and manner of soliciting and selling insurance and serving policy holders. He was able to hire and fire clerical employees without securing Nationwide's approval, though he could not on his own hire additional insurance agents. On the other hand, Nationwide monitored Darden's operations and imposed several restrictions on his activities. He was instructed not to provide price quotations over the telephone to customers. He was also directed to collect a full six months' premium for automobile insurance at the inception of the policy, and was not permitted to allow the customer to pay part of the premium after 45 days. He was required to ask questions of automobile insurance applicants in a manner in line with a certain Nationwide-mandated procedure, to set up a claims log file, to review his files and to contact policy holders 60 days before the renewal date of a policy, to have his secretaries attend training sessions sponsored by Nationwide, to inspect personally the automobiles of applicants for automobile insurance, and to meet personally with every youthful male applicant for automobile insurance. While Darden was not required to prepare regular reports for Nationwide concerning his activities, he was subject to unannounced audits by Nationwide's accountants. Nationwide encouraged Darden, but did not compel him, to attend training seminars offered by Nationwide.

Darden was compensated through commissions, rather than through a salary....

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25 practice notes
  • Kwatcher v. Massachusetts Service Employees Pension Fund, No. 88-1930
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • April 7, 1989
    ...the concept of "employer" beyond common-law or corporate-law notions is not much in doubt. See Darden v. Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co., 796 F.2d 701, 706 (4th Cir.1986) (in ERISA case, common-law test for master-servant relationship inappropriate for "employee" definition); cf. Donovan v. Agne......
  • Richland Hosp., Inc. v. Ralyon, CARTER-JONES
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Ohio
    • November 18, 1987
    ...been applied to determine pension benefits, Dockray v. Phelps Dodge Corp., supra; cf. Darden v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. (C.A.4, 1986), 796 F.2d 701, but not other benefit 11 Moreover, in Alessi v. Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc. (1981), 451 U.S. 504, 101 S.Ct. 1895, 68 L.Ed.2d 402, the Supreme C......
  • Grantham v. Beatrice Co., No. 90 C 4294.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Illinois
    • October 4, 1991
    ...ERISA provides "little guidance concerning the interpretation to be given the term `employee.'" Darden v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 796 F.2d 701, 704 (4th Cir.1986). The text of the statute cryptically defines "employee" as "any individual employed by an employer," 29 U.S.C. § As the defend......
  • Wolcott v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., No. C-2-84-854.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Southern District of Ohio
    • August 12, 1987
    ...whether the employer withholds taxes or pays social security for the "employee". The court in Darden v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., 796 F.2d 701 (4th Cir. 1986) formulated additional tests specifically directed toward the analysis of whether an individual is an employee for purposes of......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
25 cases
  • Kwatcher v. Massachusetts Service Employees Pension Fund, No. 88-1930
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)
    • April 7, 1989
    ...the concept of "employer" beyond common-law or corporate-law notions is not much in doubt. See Darden v. Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co., 796 F.2d 701, 706 (4th Cir.1986) (in ERISA case, common-law test for master-servant relationship inappropriate for "employee" definition); cf. Donovan v. Agne......
  • Richland Hosp., Inc. v. Ralyon, CARTER-JONES
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Ohio
    • November 18, 1987
    ...been applied to determine pension benefits, Dockray v. Phelps Dodge Corp., supra; cf. Darden v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. (C.A.4, 1986), 796 F.2d 701, but not other benefit 11 Moreover, in Alessi v. Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc. (1981), 451 U.S. 504, 101 S.Ct. 1895, 68 L.Ed.2d 402, the Supreme C......
  • Grantham v. Beatrice Co., No. 90 C 4294.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Illinois
    • October 4, 1991
    ...ERISA provides "little guidance concerning the interpretation to be given the term `employee.'" Darden v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 796 F.2d 701, 704 (4th Cir.1986). The text of the statute cryptically defines "employee" as "any individual employed by an employer," 29 U.S.C. § As the defend......
  • Wolcott v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., No. C-2-84-854.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Southern District of Ohio
    • August 12, 1987
    ...whether the employer withholds taxes or pays social security for the "employee". The court in Darden v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., 796 F.2d 701 (4th Cir. 1986) formulated additional tests specifically directed toward the analysis of whether an individual is an employee for purposes of......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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