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Romero v. Allstate Insurance Co.

November 9, 2010

GENE R. ROMERO, ET AL. PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ALLSTATE INSURANCE COMPANY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM

Currently pending before the Court is the Motion by Defendant Edward M. Liddy to Dismiss Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the following reasons, the Motion is denied.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND*fn1

The core of Plaintiffs' putative class action, which has been pending since August 1, 2001, alleges that Defendants Allstate Insurance Company and The Allstate Corporation (collectively "Allstate") had originally employed a substantial number of insurance sales agents with the promise that they would have a "guaranteed income" and lifetime "financial security" through a compensation package that included a pension, profit sharing, and other employee benefit plans. (Sec. Am. Compl. ¶ 1.) In the 1990s, Allstate sought to get out from under the financial burden of this promise by attempting to persuade these employee agents to convert to independent contractor status, under the pretext that this status would give them more "entrepreneurial freedom" and a capacity for greater earning power. (Id. ¶ 2.) When only a few of the employee agents voluntarily relinquished their benefits, Allstate's President and Chief Executive Officer, Edward M. Liddy, announced, in November 1999, that Allstate was instituting a "group reorganization program," under which approximately 6,300 employee agents would have their employment contracts terminated by June 30, 2000. (Id. ¶ 3.) These employee agents would be permitted to remain with Allstate as independent contractors only if they signed a release waiving their statutory and common law rights (the "Mass Termination Program"). (Id.) Allstate also imposed a moratorium on rehiring the employee agents to fill sales and customer service positions for the company. (Id.) This Mass Termination Program, either intentionally or in effect, allowed Allstate to replace older employee agents with younger hires. (Id. ¶ 6.) To further evade legal accountability, Allstate presented the employee agents with a choice: (a) sign a prepared General Release and Waiver Agreement ("Release") that waived the employee agents' right to challenge the legality of Allstate's conduct, and be permitted to either remain with Allstate as an independent contractor or leave Allstate and receive certain specified payments; or (b) not sign the Release and have their long-term relationship with Allstate severed entirely with none of the specified payments. (Id. ¶ 11.) Given these limited alternatives, over ninety-nine percent of the 6,300 employee agents signed the Release. (Id. ¶¶ 11-12.)

Several hundred of these employee agents, however, subsequently put Allstate on notice of allegations of class-wide age discrimination and/or retaliation by filing timely charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") and equivalent state agencies. (Id. ¶ 20.) The EEOC issued a ruling in which it characterized Allstate's conduct as "threats, coercion, and intimidation" and concluded that the Release was in violation of the ADEA. (Id. ¶ 12.) In light of the EEOC's finding, Plaintiffs initiated the action in federal court on August 1, 2001, against Allstate and Edward Liddy. On October 18, 2001, Plaintiffs filed their First Amended Complaint, which set forth seven Counts, as follows: (1) a declaratory judgment deeming the Release invalid under Section 510 of the Employee Retirement and Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1140, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 623, and common law; (2) individual and class claims of interference with employment and retaliation in violation of Section 510 of ERISA with respect to the Plaintiffs' attainment and receipt of pensions and benefits under various employee benefit plans; (3) individual and class claims for retaliation in violation of Section 510 of ERISA; (4) "Discriminatory Termination and Retaliation in Violation of 29 U.S.C. § 623(a) and (d)" for both individuals and the class; (5) individual and class claims for breach of the R830 contract, which governed the employment relationship between Allstate and a subclass of Plaintiffs; (6) individual and class claims for breach of the R1500 contract, which governed the employment relationship between Allstate and a different subclass of Plaintiffs; and (7) individual and class claims for breach of fiduciary duty. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 132-189.)

Discovery began in April 2002 and, over the course of the next several years, the parties engaged in extensive motion practice, including the filing of cross-motions for summary judgment and the debate over class certification issues. On March 30, 2004, the Honorable John P. Fullam, of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, entered a Declaratory Judgment holding, in part, that the Releases signed by the employee agents were voidable so long as the employee agents tendered back all benefits received in connection with signing those Releases (the "tender back" requirement). Romero v. Allstate Ins. Co., Nos. CIV.A.01-3894, 01-6764, 01-7042, 2004 WL 692231, at *3-4 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 30, 2004). On June 20, 2007, however, Judge Fullam determined that he erred in his 2004 Declaratory Judgment and, as a result, vacated that decision. Romero v. Allstate Ins. Co., Nos. CIV.A.01-3894, 01-6764, 01-7042, 2007 WL 1811197, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Jun. 20, 2007). He further granted summary judgment in Allstate's favor on the entirety of Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint. Id.

On November 26, 2007, Plaintiffs appealed this ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Reviewing the history of this case, the Third Circuit noted that Plaintiff had not received the benefit of full discovery as to issues regarding the validity of the Releases, and remarked that these issues were dispositive as to the rest of Plaintiffs' claims. Romero v. Allstate Ins. Co., 344 Fed. Appx. 785, 793 (3d Cir. 2009) ("The plaintiffs had a relatively short period of class discovery, and... are entitled to discovery that is responsive to their requests related to the specific release-related issues the plaintiffs raised with the district court in their response to its March 21, 2007 Order."). The court went on to order that the district court allow additional discovery and briefing, fully address whether the Releases are valid, and if necessary, decide all of the underlying claims and issues. Id. at 794.

On January 29, 2010, after remand from the Court of Appeals, this case was reassigned to the docket of the undersigned. In accordance with this remand, the Court entered a new Case Management Order, dated April 7, 2010, setting forth both discovery and motion deadlines. Plaintiffs then filed a Motion to Amend the Complaint. On July 28, 2010, this Court permitted the filing of a Second Amended Complaint, which made three distinct changes, including: (1) the substitution of Joseph L. Benoit for "holdout" plaintiff Douglas F. Gafner, Sr., who is now deceased and whose claims against Defendants were settled on a confidential basis while the matter was on appeal; (2) clarification that Plaintiffs assert a disparate impact claim under the ADEA insofar as they have alleged that over ninety percent of the employee agents subject to the Mass Termination Program were age forty or older as of November 16, 1999; and (3) amplification and correction of certain factual averments to specifically include allegations that Defendants made misrepresentations to induce Plaintiffs and other employee agents to sign the Release. Romero v. Allstate Ins. Co., No. CIV.A.01-3894, 2010 WL 2996963 (E.D. Pa. July 28, 2010).

On August 27, 2010, Defendant Edward M. Liddy filed a Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Plaintiffs responded on September 13, 2010 and Defendant Liddy submitted a Reply Brief on October 4, 2010. Having reviewed the parties' briefs, the Court now turns to the merits of that Motion.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under Rule 12(b)(6), a defendant bears the burden of demonstrating that the plaintiff has not stated a claim upon which relief can be granted. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6); see also Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005). In Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), the United States Supreme Court recognized that "a plaintiff's obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Id. at 555. It emphasized that it would not require a "heightened fact pleading of specifics," but only "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 570.

Following the basic precepts of Twombly, the Supreme Court, in the subsequent case of Ashcroft v. Iqbal, U.S., 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009), enunciated two fundamental principles applicable to a court's review of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. First, it noted that "the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. at 1949. Thus, although "[Federal] Rule [of Civil Procedure] 8 marks a notable and generous departure from the hyper-technical, code-pleading regime of a prior era... it does not unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions." Id. at 1950. Second, the Supreme Court emphasized that "only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss." Id. "Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will... be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id.; see also Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009) (adopting Iqbal's standards).

Notwithstanding the foregoing, nothing in Twombly or Iqbal has altered some of the fundamental underpinnings of the Rule 12(b)(6) standard of review. Arner v. PGT Trucking, Inc., No. CIV.A.09-565, 2010 WL 1052953, at *2 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 22, 2010); Spence v. Brownsville Area Sch. Dist., No. CIV.A.08-626, 2008 WL 2779079, at *2 (W.D. Pa. Jul. 15, 2008). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 still requires only a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief and need not contain detailed factual allegations. FED. R. CIV. P. 8;

Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008). Further, the court must "accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006). Finally, the court must "determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff ...


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