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Walker v. Monacacy Valley Electric, Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

January 14, 2020

CALVIN R. WALKER and JOYCE FORMBY, h/w, Plaintiffs,
v.
MONACACY VALLEY ELECTRIC, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM

          SYLVIA H. RAMBO UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the court is the motion for summary judgment (Doc. 18) filed by Defendant Monacacy Valley Electric, Inc. (“Defendant” or “Monacacy”), seeking dismissal of the wrongful termination claim (Doc. 1) brought by Plaintiff Calvin Walker (“Mr. Walker” or “Plaintiff”).[1] For the reasons stated herein, Defendant's motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background[2]

         The court begins by examining the record in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, Plaintiff. Mr. Walker is a master electrician and project superintendent by trade. He previously worked for Monacacy in this capacity, with his average daily work requiring him to climb ladders, work on lifts and scaffolding, lift materials exceeding twenty pounds, and perform work over his head.

         On November 23, 2015, Mr. Walker was performing work on a ladder when he fell and suffered significant injuries.[3] As a result, Mr. Walker sought medical care and acquired an occupational evaluation from his physician. On December 3, 2015, Mr. Walker discussed his fall with Brian Smith (“Mr. Smith”), one of Monacacy's co-owners, and stated that he was in too much pain to work. Mr. Smith told Mr. Walker he understood and to “take as much time as you need.” Mr. Walker never reported back for work.

         On December 4, 2015, Mr. Walker participated in a meeting with Monacacy's co-owners, Mr. Smith, Larry Smith (“Larry”), and Mr. Wantz (collectively, the “Co-owners”). During the meeting, the Co-owners appeared to make conflicting statements. In response to Mr. Walker telling the group he intended to file a workers' compensation claim, Mr. Wantz “got kind of a little irate and made some statements, ” including that Mr. Walker “was more of a liability to the company than . . . an asset.” (Doc. 22-1, 96:2-16.) Mr. Smith and Larry, however, told Mr. Wantz “you need to watch your mouth and not say what you're saying, ” and that they needed to wait and see what Mr. Walker's doctor said before making any such decision. (Id.)

         A previous discussion between Mr. Walker's wife and Mr. Wantz provides context for how Mr. Walker interpreted the statements at the meeting. Approximately two years before this injury, Mr. Walker suffered a separate workplace injury while employed by Monacacy. While driving to Chambersburg Hospital, Mr. Walker had to pull over and call an ambulance to aid him in reaching the facility. Mr. Walker then told his wife to contact Mr. Wantz and inform him of what happened. After informing Mr. Wantz of Mr. Walker's injuries, Mr. Wantz:

right away was like what are you talking about, I can't afford - - I can't afford this. He says another person with workman's comp, he says, you know, I'm just going to have to lay him off, I'm just going to have to lay him off. I'm, like, begging with him. I'm like you can't just lay - -you know, just lay him off. I mean he needs a job. I mean like I told you we were just getting out of a financial situation. And he's like, well, you know, it's ridiculous, you know, these people. . . . It was just like he - - if we did a workman's comp case that day, that - - if we did that, then he was going to be - - he was going to be fired.

(Doc. 22-2, 30:9-25.) In light of this history, Mr. Walker believed Mr. Wantz's comments during the December 4, 2015, meeting meant the company intended to fire him if he filed for workers' compensation.

         On December 14, 2015, Mr. Walker saw a physician by the name of Dr. Adourian. Two days later, Dr. Adourian notified Defendant's workers' compensation carrier, Federated Insurance, that Mr. Walker was too physically impaired to work. Eight days later, Mr. Walker filed a claim petition for workers' compensation benefits with Federated Insurance. The insurer denied his claim, resulting in the claim being litigated through the Department of Labor and Industry Bureau of Workers' Compensation.[4] Mr. Walker has also applied for and received short-term disability benefits.

         Over the next few months, Mr. Walker began contacting The Contractor's Plan, a third-party Monacacy had hired to handle employee benefits. The Contractors Plan initially informed Mr. Walker he was unable to request an early withdrawal of any retirement benefits because his employment with Defendant did not appear to have ended. In April of 2016, Mr. Walker contacted The Contractor's Plan again, resulting in it sending him a “Distribution Request and Election Form.” Mr. Walker filled the form out and stated he had been “terminated from employment with the employer named on this form and not been rehired.”

         The Contractor's Plan subsequently contacted Monacacy's human resources (“HR”) department, requesting that it verify the date of Mr. Walker's termination or reply with “DENIED - STILL EMPLOYED.” (Doc. 18-5, p. 19 of 29.) Monacacy replied: “Termination: last day at [Monacacy] 12/05/15.” (Doc. 18-4, pp. 60-61 of 63.) The Contractor's Plan then sent Mr. Walker a Retirement Plan Account Statement that noted: “Date of Termination 12/5/2015.” (Doc. 22-5, p. 24/29.) Defendant then notified its short-term disability insurer, Companion Life, that Mr. Walker was no longer employed with it.[5]

         In early 2016, Mr. Walker underwent surgery for his injuries. In August of 2017, Mr. Walker's physician, Dr. Mark Knaub, stated that Mr. Walker's level of recovery suggested he was only able to perform “light work” that did not require him to lift twenty pounds over his head or work on a ladder. It is unclear if this accurately describes Mr. Walker's capabilities today. On the one hand, Mr. Walker testified at deposition that he did not feel that he could work in any capacity. On the other hand, he stated he has the ability to perform some administrative work if he was permitted to stay at a desk and not perform any regular physical labor. Either way, Mr. Walker admitted that he did not request such light work from Monacacy, nor has he spoken to any Monacacy personnel since the December 4, 2015, meeting or applied for any new work.

         On November 21, 2017, Mr. Walker and his wife sued Defendant for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, alleging Defendant fired Walker in retaliation for him filing for workers' compensation. (Doc. 1.) Defendant then filed a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss both parties' claims for punitive damages and Ms. Formby's claims in their entirety. (Docs. 6-7.) The parties proceeded to fully brief the motion to dismiss, conduct discovery, then fully brief summary judgment as well. (Docs. 18, 23-24, 28 (summary judgment briefing)). The court granted Defendant's motion to dismiss in part, dismissing Ms. Formby's claims in their entirety but denying the motion regarding punitive damages. (Docs. 29-30.) This rendered moot part of Defendant's motion for summary judgment concerning Formby's claims. The remainder of Defendant's motion for summary judgment is ripe for review.

         II. Standard of Review

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). A factual dispute is “material” if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable substantive law and is “genuine” only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable fact finder to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). When evaluating a motion for summary judgment, a court “must view ...


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