Watkins v. United Parcel Service, Inc., Civ. A. No. J90-0620(W).

CourtUnited States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Southern District of Mississippi
Writing for the CourtKenneth Milam, Jackson, Miss., for defendant
Citation797 F. Supp. 1349
PartiesRonald A. WATKINS, Plaintiff, v. UNITED PARCEL SERVICE, INC., Defendant.
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. J90-0620(W).
Decision Date10 June 1992

COPYRIGHT MATERIAL OMITTED

Paul Koerber, Abe Rotwein, Jackson, Miss., for plaintiff.

Kenneth Milam, Jackson, Miss., for defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

WINGATE, District Judge.

Before the court is the motion of the defendant, United Parcel Service, Inc. hereinafter UPS, for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56(c)1 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Having studied the motion, briefs of the parties, the complaint, affidavits, depositions, and other documents filed, and having heard oral arguments in the matter, this court is persuaded to grant summary judgment for the defendant UPS.

I. INTRODUCTION

This legal action arose out of the defendant's firing of the plaintiff, Ronald Watkins, an employee of UPS, for violating the defendant's "anti-fraternization" policy. The policy, contained in the defendant's "Impartial Employment and Promotion Guide" states:

Fraternization is discouraged throughout our organization. Fraternization which includes a supervisory or management employee may be perceived as favoritism or sexual harassment. Fraternization between a supervisor or manager and an employee is not permissable sic. Fraternization is clearly not in the best interest of the company, the manager, or the employee.

"Impartial Employment and Promotion Guide," page 11. The Guide further provides on the final page:

Fraternization is discouraged throughout our organization. Fraternization between a supervisor or manager and an employee who is directly or indirectly supervised is not permissable sic.

On or about April 15, 1971, plaintiff Ronald Watkins began his employment with UPS as a package car driver. (See Plaintiff's Amended Complaint). After working several years with UPS, plaintiff was promoted to a managerial position. (See Plaintiff's Amended Complaint). On or about the year 1988, plaintiff, then a division manager with UPS, began a relationship with a female employee, Helen Gable, a UPS truck driver assigned to the company's Meridian, Mississippi, facility. (See Plaintiff's Amended Complaint and Plaintiff's Deposition at page 27). When the relationship began between plaintiff Watkins and Gable, the plaintiff was the south division manager of UPS, a territory which encompasses Meridian, Mississippi. (See Plaintiff's Deposition at pages 13 and 27). At the time of the inception of the relationship, plaintiff was aware of the defendant's anti-fraternization policy. (See Plaintiff's Deposition at page 26). On or about June, 1988, certain managers at UPS discovered plaintiff's relationship with Gable. (See Defendant's Response to Plaintiff's Interrogatory No. 12). UPS District Manager Kenny Bolton confronted plaintiff about the relationship, and plaintiff admitted that he and Gable were in fact seeing one another. (Id.) On or about August 15, 1988, plaintiff, District Manager Bolton, and District Personnel Manager Rick Warlick met to review UPS's policies concerning fraternization and sexual harassment. (See Plaintiff's Deposition at pages 32-35). As a result of the meeting, Bolton informed the plaintiff that he could either resign or be terminated for conduct unbecoming a management employee. (See Defendant's Response to Plaintiff's Interrogatory No. 12). Plaintiff refused to resign. Thereafter, UPS fired the plaintiff for violating the company's anti-fraternization policy. (See Defendant's Response to Plaintiff's Interrogatory No. 5 and Plaintiff's Deposition at page 33).

II. PLAINTIFF'S COMPLAINT

The plaintiff filed this present action against UPS for compensatory and punitive damages, asserting a wrongful termination of employment. Jurisdiction before this court is predicated upon 28 U.S.C. § 13312 and 28 U.S.C. § 1332.3 Watkins seeks to recover against UPS on several legal theories including: (1) breach of an employment contract; (2) tortious invasion of privacy; (3) intentional infliction of mental and emotional distress; (4) intentional interference with benefits under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), 29 U.S.C. § 1140; (5) breach of fiduciary duties; and (6) violation of public policy.

Seeking to sidestep Mississippi's "termination-at-will" employment policy,4 plaintiff argues that UPS provided managerial employees such as himself with a "policy book" and that this manual created a binding and enforceable contract of employment which was breached. Watkins asserts that the defendant breached this written contract of employment by firing him under the company's anti-fraternization policy, when this policy is not specifically proscribed by the policy book. The anti-fraternization policy is found in a separate corporate document known as the "Impartial Employment and Promotion Guide." Alternatively, plaintiff argues that even if the policy handbook does not create an employment contract, and even if Mississippi's "at-will" termination rule then be in effect, plaintiff should prevail here because UPS violated public policy which should forbid employers from terminating employees simply because they engage in private, consensual and personal inter-office relationships. Seeking juridical support for this proposition, plaintiff rests part of his public policy argument on the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.5 According to plaintiff, the Fifth Amendment here applies and protects his employment since all persons are entitled to the "most fundamental of human rights — sexual relationships, and marital relationships." (See Plaintiff's Response to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment).

The plaintiff further contends that UPS's intentional decision to terminate him based on his private relationship with another employee constituted a tortious invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of mental and emotional distress.

As to the ERISA claim, plaintiff states that the defendant "unlawfully discharged the plaintiff for the purpose of interfering with the attainment of rights to further stock option purchases to which the plaintiff would become entitled under the terms and provisions ..." of an employee stock option plan. Plaintiff asserts that such action by UPS violated 29 U.S.C. § 1140.6 (See Plaintiff's Complaint).

Finally, the plaintiff asserts that since the policy book referred to managerial employees and the defendant company as "partners," a fiduciary relationship existed and UPS owed plaintiff certain fiduciary duties. According to Watkins, this fiduciary relationship also existed as a consequence of plaintiff's participation in and ownership of an employee stock option plan.

III. DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
A. Defendant's Arguments

Defendant UPS filed a motion for summary judgment contending that there are no genuine issues of material fact, and, therefore, that the company is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Defendant first asserts that the company's policy book does not create a binding and enforceable employment contract with Watkins, since, says defendant, company policy books or manuals, standing alone, do not create an employment contract, citing Sloan v. Taylor Machinery Co., 501 So.2d 409, 410-11 (Miss.1987) (employer handbook provided four months after commencement of employment did not transfer oral employment agreement into written contract). Defendant contends that plaintiff Watkins has pointed to no written or oral agreement, express or implied, enforceable against UPS, which would preclude the defendant from firing plaintiff for violating the anti-fraternization policy. Further, UPS notes that Mississippi follows the at-will rule of employment, which means that an employer may terminate an employee hired for an indefinite term for any reason, good or bad, or no reason at all. See Samples v. Hall of Mississippi, Inc., 673 F.Supp. 1413, 1416 (N.D.Miss.1987) (Mississippi follows "at-will" termination rule); Kelly v. Mississippi Valley Gas Co., 397 So.2d 874, 874-75 (Miss.1981) (same).

UPS further argues that the plaintiff may not recover on a public policy exception to the Mississippi "at-will" rule, since Mississippi recognizes no such exception. See Russell v. Schering-Plough Corp., 725 F.Supp. 901, 902 (S.D.Miss.1989) (declined to adopt public policy exception to Mississippi's "at-will" rule). Nor may plaintiff seek assistance from the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution as to the public policy argument, says the defendant, since UPS is a private employer and the plaintiff has shown no state action. See, e.g., United States v. Price, 383 U.S. 787, 799, 86 S.Ct. 1152, 1160, 16 L.Ed.2d 267 (1966) (Fourteenth Amendment protects individuals against state action not private wrongs).

The defendant also attacks the plaintiff's breach of fiduciary duty claim. UPS contends that Mississippi does not recognize a fiduciary relationship flowing from a mere employment contract, citing Guthrie v. J.C. Penney Co., Inc., 803 F.2d 202 (5th Cir. 1986). In Guthrie, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, applying Mississippi state precedent, noted the absence of any Mississippi case law which found the existence of "fiduciary duties in an employment relationship." The Court further stated, "On the contrary, Mississippi follows the rule of employment at will." Guthrie, 803 F.2d at 211.

UPS assaults the plaintiff's ERISA claim on two grounds. Firstly, the defendant asserts that the plaintiff's employment stock option plan is a non-qualified plan and not covered by ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. Secondly, UPS claims that even if the plan is governed by ERISA plaintiff has put forth no factual proof that the defendant's actions were for the purpose of terminating any rights to ERISA benefits. Defendant cites in support the case of Simmons v. Willcox, 911 F.2d 1077, 1082 (5th Cir.1990) (plaintiff must establish that...

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