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Young v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

December 13, 2019

MICHAEL L. YOUNG, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Michael L. Young (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001-1461, alleging that Defendant State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (“Defendant”), [1] his former employer, improperly refused to pay him a severance benefit upon his separation. (See ECF No. 6.) Before this Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 22, 23.) For the reasons explained more fully herein, Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 22) is DENIED. Defendant's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 23) is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff began his employment with Defendant as a proximity field auto estimator in 1993. (ECF No. 20-4 at 5.) Prior to May 2014, Plaintiff was a mobile worker. (Id.) At that time, Plaintiff began working in the Charleston, West Virginia, office. (Id.) However, he was never reclassified in Defendant's computer system as an in-office worker. (See Id. at 1, 7.)

         In May 2016, Defendant announced a “transition plan” that affected certain teleworking employees. (ECF No. 20-3.) Eligible employees who were to be terminated under the transition plan would receive severance benefits. (See Id. at 3.) Initially, Plaintiff was identified as an employee impacted by the transition plan, and he was to be terminated on October 31, 2016. (Id. at 14.) Shortly afterward, however, Defendant questioned whether Plaintiff was misclassified because although “[h]is department code reflects a mobile worker . . . he has been working from the Charleston (WV) Operations Center for several years now.” (ECF No. 20-4 at 1.) Plaintiff's supervisors confirmed that he was an in-office worker and referred to his misclassification as a mobile worker as an “oversight.” (Id. at 2-4.)

         Defendant conducted an internal review of the situation in August 2016 and ultimately concluded that Plaintiff should be removed from the transition plan's list of eligible employees “[b]ased on the fact that [Defendant] took [Plaintiff's] vehicle away and leadership says that he was continuously working form [sic] an in office location.” (Id. at 6-7.) Defendant informed Plaintiff of its decision and the reasons for it on or about August 16, 2016. (Id. at 9.) Specifically, Defendant reasoned that Plaintiff was an in-office worker, which was “further support[ed]” by the fact that Plaintiff's company vehicle “was removed in 2014.” (Id.) Plaintiff responded on August 24, 2016, agreeing that his “dedicated use of a company vehicle was removed in 2014” but arguing that he was still classified as a teleworker who worked in the office “as a convenience.” (Id. at 10-11.) As support for his assertion that he was an impacted teleworker, Plaintiff recollected that he was forced to take a vacation day in February 2015 when the office was closed due to weather and that he worked outside the office in March 2016. (Id. at 10.) He requested that Defendant “revisit” its decision. (Id.)

         Defendant further researched the matter, concluding that Plaintiff “was required to work in the office based on the type of work he was doing and the need for supervision of his work” beginning in May 2014. (Id. at 16.) Defendant also confirmed that Plaintiff's company vehicle was reassigned on August 15, 2014, and he was not permitted to work from home even when requested. (Id.) Ultimately, Defendant determined that Plaintiff's “location code should have been changed [from mobile worker to the Charleston office], but it never was.” (Id.) As a result of this review, on September 1, 2016, Defendant formally denied Plaintiff's claim under its severance plan because Plaintiff was an in-office worker not impacted by the transition plan and because “there was no Company Initiated Termination.” (Id. at 17-18.) However, despite Defendant's decision that Plaintiff did not qualify for benefits under the severance plan, on or about September 13, 2016, Defendant sent Plaintiff a packet of materials to review and sign in order to receive such benefits. (Id. at 19-28.) On or about October 11, 2016, Defendant sent Plaintiff a letter stating that he received the packet “in [e]rror.” (Id. at 32.)

         In the meantime, Plaintiff appealed Defendant's denial of benefits, repeating his arguments that he “worked often from the Charleston, WV office as a convenience” but “was never reassigned to that office, ” was forced to take a paid vacation day when the office was closed due to weather in February 2015 because he was a teleworker, and worked in the field in March 2016. (Id. at 29-31.) He also noted that he received the September 13 correspondence from Defendant and was considering retirement to coincide with his termination date. (Id. at 31.) Defendant's Severance Appeal Committee met on October 24, 2016, and “unanimously agreed that [Plaintiff] was not an impacted employee under an approved transition plan” and was “ineligible for severance benefits.” (ECF No. 20-5 at 24.) The committee explained that even though Plaintiff was listed in Defendant's computer system as a teleworker, “supporting information clearly illustrated that he has not been operating in a teleworker capacity since 2014 and instead has been working in [the Charleston office].” (Id.) Defendant informed Plaintiff of the committee's decision by letter dated October 25, 2016, but it appears that Plaintiff did not receive the letter until on or about December 19, 2016. (Id. at 25, 29- 30.) Plaintiff left his employment with Defendant on or about October 31, 2016, when he retired. (See ECF No. 26 at 9.)

         Plaintiff filed this action on October 24, 2018. (ECF No. 1-1.) The parties filed their cross-motions for summary judgment on July 18, 2019. (ECF Nos. 22, 23.) Defendant timely responded to Plaintiff's motion (ECF No. 25), and Plaintiff timely replied (ECF No. 27). Plaintiff timely responded to Defendant's motion (ECF No. 26), but Defendant did not file a reply. As such, the motions are fully briefed and ready for resolution.


         A. Motion for Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the moving party “shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “A fact is material when it ‘might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.'” Strothers v. City of Laurel, 895 F.3d 317, 326 (4th Cir. 2018) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). “A genuine dispute arises when ‘the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.'” Id. (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). “Thus, at the summary judgment phase, the pertinent 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.” Variety Stores, Inc. v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 888 F.3d 651, 659 (4th Cir. 2018) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted).

         “The burden is on the nonmoving party to show that there is a genuine issue of material fact for trial . . . by offering ‘sufficient proof in the form of admissible evidence' . . . .” Guessous v. Fairview Prop. Invs., LLC, 828 F.3d 208, 216 (4th Cir. 2016). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, this Court “view[s] the facts and all justifiable inferences arising therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Jones v. Chandrasuwan, 820 F.3d 685, 691 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Libertarian Party of Va. v. Judd, 718 F.3d 308, 312 (4th Cir. 2013)).

         B. Review of Defendant's ...

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