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Barnett v. SKF USA

July 13, 2009

LAWRENCE J. BARNETT, CHRISTINE COOKENBACK, JAMES M. DEFEO AND MADLIN LAURENT, APPELLEE
v.
SKF USA, INC., APPELLANT



Appeal from the Order entered October 31, 2007 In the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, Civil at No(s): 93-19687.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Panella, J.

Petition for Reargument Filed July 24, 2009; Petition for Reargument Denied September 21, 2009

BEFORE: PANELLA, SHOGAN, and ALLEN, JJ.

OPINION

¶ 1 Appellant, SKF USA, Inc. ("SKF"), appeals the order issued on October 31, 2007, by the Honorable Bernard A. Moore, Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County.*fn1 After careful review, we affirm.

¶ 2 Appellees, Lawrence J. Barnett, Christine Cookenback, James M. DeFeo and Madlin Laurent ("Appellees"), are all former salaried, non-union employees of the Philadelphia plant of SKF, which was part of the MRC Bearings Division ("the division") located in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. SKF maintained a written pension plan governed by the Employment Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA")*fn2 for its salaried employees, Appellees, at the Philadelphia plant. Under SKF's non-union pension plan, any salaried employee who reached the age of 45 years and had 20 years of service with SKF at the time of termination was entitled to receive immediate vesting of pension benefits. None of the Appellees had reached the age of 45 or, in the alternate, completed 20 years of service at the time their employment with SKF terminated.

¶ 3 On September 29, 1993, Appellees instituted a cause of action for breach of an oral agreement against their employer, SKF, alleging that SKF requested that they continue working at its Philadelphia plant and forego seeking alternate employment until the plant closed later that year in December, 1991. Appellees specifically contended that, in exchange for their continued employment, SKF orally*fn3 offered them specific termination rights equal to that which was offered to the union members of SKF when the plant closed in 1991, terms which Appellees accepted.*fn4 Appellees thereafter sought to confirm the promised benefits via a written memorandum issued to a SKF Plant Manager, Tony Del Signore, on June 17, 1991. However, upon the closing of the Philadelphia division, SKF failed to provide Appellees with the promised severance benefits and litigation subsequently ensued.

¶ 4 Thereafter, SKF filed preliminary objections to the complaint, challenging the Appellees' cause of action on grounds of preemption under ERISA, which were denied. SKF subsequently submitted two consecutive motions for summary judgment, again opposing the instant action on the basis of preemption under ERISA; both motions for summary judgment were summarily denied. Thereafter, SKF instituted this timely appeal.

¶ 5 On appeal, SKF raises the following single issue for our consideration:

WHETHER THE TRIAL COURT ERRED AS A MATTER OF LAW IN DENYING SKF'S RENEWED MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON THE GROUNDS THAT THE APPELLEES' BREACH OF CONTRACT CLAIM WAS NOT PREEMPTED, AND THEREFORE NOT BARRED, BY ERISA? Appellant's Brief, at 3.

¶ 6 Our standard of review and the general rule for reviewing a lower court's grant or denial of summary judgment is as follows:

Our review on an appeal from the grant of a motion for summary judgment is well-settled. A reviewing court may disturb the order of the trial court only where it is established that the court committed an error of law or abused its discretion. As with all questions of law, our review is plenary.

In evaluating the trial court's decision to enter summary judgment, we focus on the legal standard articulated in the summary judgment rule. The rule states that where there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to relief as a matter of law, summary judgment may be entered. Where the non-moving party bears the burden of proof on an issue, he may not merely rely on his pleadings or answers in order to survive summary judgment. Failure of a non-moving party to adduce sufficient evidence on an issue essential to his case and on which it bears the burden of proof establishes the entitlement of the moving party to judgment as a matter of law. Lastly, we will view ...


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