Morris v. Winnebago Industries, Inc.

Decision Date06 August 1996
Docket NumberNo. C 94-3047-MWB.,C 94-3047-MWB.
Citation936 F. Supp. 1509
PartiesJohn R. MORRIS, Plaintiff, v. WINNEBAGO INDUSTRIES, INC., Winnebago Industries Deferred Compensation Plan, and Administrator of the Winnebago Industries Deferred Compensation Plan, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Iowa

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Helen C. Adams and Brent R. Appel of Dickinson, Mackaman, Tyler & Hagen, P.C., Des Moines, Iowa, C. Jean Pendleton of Charnetski, Olson, Lacina & Pendleton, Grinnell, Iowa, for Plaintiff.

Gene R. LaSuer and Steven L. Nelson of Davis, Brown, Koehn, Shors & Roberts, P.C., Des Moines, Iowa, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER REGARDING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

BENNETT, District Judge.

                                               TABLE OF CONTENTS
                  I. INTRODUCTION ............................................. 1514
                 II. STANDARDS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ........................... 1515
                III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND ........................................ 1517
                     A. Undisputed Facts ....................................... 1517
                     B. Disputed Facts ......................................... 1519
                 IV. LEGAL ANALYSIS ............................................ 1520
                     A. ERISA And Its Provisions ............................... 1520
                        1. Prohibition on "retaliation" and "interference" ..... 1520
                        2. Fiduciary duty ...................................... 1521
                        3. Private enforcement ................................. 1522
                     B. Morris's Claims ........................................ 1522
                        1. Wrongful discharge .................................. 1523
                           a. The analytical framework ......................... 1523
                               i. The prima facie case ......................... 1523
                              ii. Legitimate reason ............................ 1524
                             iii. Third-stage requirements ..................... 1524
                           b. The burden-shifting analysis here ................ 1527
                        2. Breach of fiduciary duty and violation of plan terms  1529
                           a. Breach of fiduciary duty ......................... 1531
                           b. Violation of terms of the Plan ................... 1533
                  V. CONCLUSION ................................................ 1535
                

In ruling on the defendants' motion for summary judgment in this ERISA action, the court has unexpectedly encountered a split among the circuits concerning the proper standards for the final stage of a burden-shifting analysis of "wrongful discharge" claims. The court also unexpectedly encountered issues of subject matter jurisdiction over claims of breach of fiduciary duty and violation of the terms of an ERISA plan. Plaintiff alleges that his discharge from employment was motivated by a desire to interfere with his expensive benefits in a deferred compensation plan in violation of § 510 of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 510 of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1140. He also alleges that defendants breached their fiduciary duty and violated the terms of the plan, entitling him to remedies under 29 U.S.C. § 1132. Defendants have moved for summary judgment on all three claims, contending that the plaintiff's discharge undisputably was caused by financial difficulties of the company, causing the defendants to eliminate plaintiff's job. They further contend that they acted in compliance with the terms of the plan, thus precluding any claim for breach of fiduciary duty or violation of the plan. Plaintiff contends that genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment in defendants' favor on any of his claims. With trial imminent, the court must resolve this long-pending summary judgment motion and the unexpected issues the motion raises.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff John R. Morris filed his complaint in this matter on June 27, 1994, asserting three claims pursuant to the Employee Retirement Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001-1461. Defendants are Morris's former employer, Winnebago Industries, Inc., and the Winnebago Industries Deferred Compensation Plan and its Administrator (collectively, "Winnebago"). Morris filed an amended and substituted complaint on July 7, 1995. At issue in this lawsuit are Morris's rights under ERISA in a deferred compensation plan. For his first claim in the amended complaint, Morris alleges that he was wrongfully discharged from his employment as the Director of the Winnebago International Travelers Club on January 10, 1991, in violation of § 510 of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1140. Specifically, he alleges his discharge was motivated by Winnebago's desire to avoid the cost of future retirement, pension, and health benefits to which Morris would have been entitled had he remained employed with Winnebago. In Count II of his complaint, Morris alleges that Winnebago breached its fiduciary duty to him under a deferred compensation plan by failing to disclose facts or misleading him as to the following: computation of benefits under the plan; options regarding leaving his deferred salary in the plan or receiving it at the time of his termination; and the advisability of making a deferral in January of 1991. In Count III of the complaint, Morris alleges that Winnebago violated the terms of the deferred compensation plan by refusing to allow him to make a contribution to the plan in 1991, his fourth year of contributions, and in returning his contributions to the plan to him upon his termination. Morris seeks relief on Counts II and III pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132.

Defendants answered the amended complaint on July 20, 1995, denying all of Morris's claims. They then moved for summary judgment on all counts on September 19, 1995. Plaintiff resisted the motion for summary judgment on October 18, 1995, asserting that genuine issues of material fact preclude summary disposition of his claims. Chief Magistrate Judge John A. Jarvey, to whom the case had been referred owing to the court's crowded docket, heard oral arguments on the motion for summary judgment on October 19, 1995. However, because of his own oppressive case load, Judge Jarvey has not been able to rule on the motion for summary judgment during the intervening months. Because the parties desire a disposition of the motion for summary judgment prior to trial, which has just been continued from the original date of August 5 to August 13, 1996, the court withdraws the referral of this matter to Judge Jarvey and will itself rule on the motion for summary judgment. In addition to rescheduling the trial in this matter, on August 1, 1996, the court struck Morris's jury demand. Therefore, this matter will be tried, if at all, to the court.

Upon the court's review of the case and the motion for summary judgment, it appeared to the court that, in order to resolve the issues raised on summary judgment as to Counts II and III of the amended complaint, the parties should be required to submit further briefing on the relationship between the actual deferred compensation plan document and the Deferred Compensation Plan Information Booklet upon which the parties had founded their arguments. The parties were therefore given the opportunity to supplement their summary judgment briefs on that issue. Winnebago submitted such a supplemental brief by facsimile on August 1, 1996. Morris followed, submitting a supplemental brief by facsimile on August 6, 1996.

The court apologizes for the long delay in ruling on Winnebago's motion for summary judgment, and regrets that Judge Jarvey's and the court's crowded dockets had not allowed for a more timely disposition. However, this matter is now fully submitted and supplemented, and the court turns to the consideration of Winnebago's motion for summary judgment.

II. STANDARDS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recognizes "that summary judgment is a drastic remedy and must be exercised with extreme care to prevent taking genuine issues of fact away from juries." Wabun-Inini v. Sessions, 900 F.2d 1234, 1238 (8th Cir.1990). On the other hand, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure have authorized for nearly 60 years "motions for summary judgment upon proper showings of the lack of a genuine, triable issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2555, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Thus, "summary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole, which are designed `to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action.'" Wabun-Inini, 900 F.2d at 1238 (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2555, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986)); Hartnagel v. Norman, 953 F.2d 394, 396 (8th Cir.1992).

The standard for granting summary judgment is well established. Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states in pertinent part:

Rule 56. Summary Judgment
(b) For Defending Party. A party against whom a claim ... is asserted ... may, at any time, move for summary judgment in the party's favor as to all or any part thereof.
(c) Motions and Proceedings Thereon. ... The judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, 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(b) & (c) (emphasis added); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552-53, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986); Reliance Ins. Co. v. Shenandoah South, Inc., 81 F.3d 789, 791 (8th Cir.1996); Beyerbach v. Sears, 49 F.3d 1324, 1325 (8th Cir.1995); Munz v. Michael, 28 F.3d 795, 798 (8th Cir.1994); Roth v. U.S.S. Great Lakes Fleet, Inc., 25 F.3d 707, 708 (8th Cir.1994); Cole v. Bone, 993 F.2d 1328, 1331 (8th Cir.1993); Woodsmith Publishing Co. v. Meredith Corp., 904 F.2d 1244, 1247 (8th Cir.1990); Wabun...

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