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FERGUSON v. FREEDOM FORGE CORP.

April 2, 1985

CHARLES W. FERGUSON, Plaintiff
v.
FREEDOM FORGE CORPORATION, t/d/b/a STANDARD STEEL, A Corporation, TITANIUM METALS CORPORATION OF AMERICA, A Delaware Corporation, DAVID D. BORLAND, an individual, and JOSEPH W. WAPNER, an individual, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: MENCER

The plaintiff, Charles W. Ferguson, brings this action against the defendants, Freedom Forge Corporation (hereinafter referred to as Standard Steel), Titanium Metals Corporation of America, David D. Borland and Joseph E. Wapner, to contest the termination of his employment and to recover certain benefits allegedly owed to him. This action was removed from the Court of Common Pleas of Westmoreland County. We have jurisdiction pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (hereinafter referred to as ERISA), 29 U.S.C. ยง 1001 et seq. and pendent jurisdiction.

 The plaintiff alleges four separate causes of action. Count I alleges a claim under Pennsylvania law for wrongful discharge; Count II alleges a claim in assumpsit under Pennsylvania law for breach of an implied contract of employment; Count III alleges a claim under ERISA for violations of pension plan rights; and Count IV alleges a claim in quasi contract for appropriation of the plaintiff's intellectual property. Standard Steel is a defendant with respect to all four counts. Defendants Borland and Wapner, however, are named only with respect to Counts I and III. Defendant Titanium Metals Corporation of America is named only in Count III.

 The Court has before it defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. The plaintiff opposes the motion, contending that there are substantial issues of material fact which prevent the entry of summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 56(c) provides that summary judgment is proper 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 a judgment as a matter of law." Whether or not disputed issues of material fact exist should be ascertained by resolving "all inferences, doubts and issues of credibility against the moving party." Ely v. Hall's Motor Transit Company, 590 F.2d 62 (3d Cir. 1978).

 This action arose out of the termination of the plaintiff's employment on November 2, 1983. The plaintiff had been employed with the defendant, Standard Steel, since 1948, except for a brief period of lay off and military service. At the time of his termination, the plaintiff was employed as a General-Foreman in the Internal Transportation Department of the defendant Standard Steel's Burnham, Pennsylvania plant. The plaintiff was not a member of any bargaining unit. The plaintiff alleges that his termination was a result of his continuing association with the former president of that company, Mr. Fogerty, who had been discharged previously. The plaintiff also alleges that in a meeting with three supervisors on November 2, 1983, he was accused of stealing two five gallon cans of gasoline. At this meeting, it is alleged that the plaintiff was required to choose between resigning and receiving six months severance pay, or being discharged for misconduct. The plaintiff chose to resign.

 In order to facilitate discussion of the defendant's Motion, we will discuss defendants' Motion, with respect to each count, in separate sections below.

 I. Wrongful Discharge

 In order to preclude summary judgment, there must be a disputed issue as to a material fact. Even though a dispute may exist relative to a certain fact, the court is not prevented from entering summary judgment unless that fact is material. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The defendants in this case concede that there is a factual dispute as to the reason for the plaintiff's termination. However, the defendants contend that the reason is not a material fact because even if the plaintiff's reason for his termination is assumed to be correct, the plaintiff has failed to state a claim under Pennsylvania law for wrongful discharge.

 In Novosel v. Nationwide Insurance Co., 721 F.2d 894 (3d Cir. 1983), the Third Circuit held that Pennsylvania law permits a cause of action for wrongful discharge where the employment termination abridges a significant and recognized public policy. The question we must decide is whether an averment of discharge for associating with a particular individual, which we take as true for purposes of this motion, is sufficiently violative of public policy as to state a cause of action. We hold that it does not violate a clear mandate of public policy sufficient to fall within the exception to the employee-at-will doctrine and grant defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment for Count I.

 In Novosel, the court held an employee's discharge fell within the public policy exception since the employee's freedom of political expression was violated. The court stated that the employee's freedom of political expression involved "no less compelling a societal interest than the fulfillment of jury service or the filing of a workers' compensation claim," two situations which were held by the Pennsylvania Superior Court to fall within the public policy exception. Novosel, at 899. The interest of the employee in this case, to be free to associate with Mr. Fogerty, does not rise to the same public policy level as the interest of the employee in Novosel to be free to express his political views.

 The plaintiff, in his brief, relies on Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609, 82 L. Ed. 2d 462, 471, 104 S. Ct. 3244, (1984), for the proposition that the Bill of Rights affords "the formation and preservation of certain kinds of highly personal relationships a substantial measure of sanctuary from unjustified interference by the State." However, the Supreme Court in Roberts discussed, in two distinct senses, the constitutionally protected freedom of association. One line of its decisions, the Court noted, protects an individual's choice to enter into and maintain certain intimate human relationships. In that regard, freedom of association receives protection as a fundamental aspect of personal liberty. Another set of decisions recognizes "a right to associate for the purpose of engaging in those activities protected by the 1st Amendment - speech, assembly, petition for the redress of grievances, and the exercise of religion." This type of freedom of association is guaranteed by the constitution as a means of preserving other individual liberties. The Supreme Court noted that "the nature and degree of constitutional protection afforded freedom of association may vary depending on the extent to which one or the other aspect of the constitutionally protected liberty is at stake in a given case." Id. 82 L. Ed. 2d at 471. The Court went on to state that the personal affiliations that exemplify the associational relationships, and that also suggest limitations on the relationships entitled to the constitutional protection, are those that attend the creation and sustenance of a family.

 The interest of a person to associate with a particular individual who is not a family member, does not rise to the same public policy level. The plaintiff has not stated a claim under the limited public policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine in Pennsylvania.


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