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PARIS v. F. KORBEL & BROS.

March 14, 1990

LEIGH PARIS, RONALD PARIS, and JONATHAN NORTHROP, Plaintiffs,
v.
F. KORBEL & BROTHERS, INC., F. KORBEL & BROTHERS, INC., AS PLAN ADMINISTRATOR, and DOES 1 through 30, inclusive, Defendants


Thelton E. Henderson, Chief United States District Judge.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: HENDERSON

THELTON E. HENDERSON, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

 Plaintiffs Leigh Paris, Ronald Paris and Jonathan Northrop move for summary judgment on their claims that defendant F. Korbel & Brothers (Korbel) violated portions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 1161-1168 (Supp. 1987) (hereinafter "ERISA"), and that the defendant wrongfully terminated Leigh Paris. Defendant Korbel cross-moves for summary judgment that no ERISA violations occurred and that it did not wrongfully terminate Leigh Paris. In addition, Korbel moves on grounds of federal preemption for summary judgment on Leigh Paris' tort claims from Korbel's alleged violations of ERISA. For the reasons set forth below, this Court GRANTS summary judgment in favor of Korbel on Leigh Paris' claim of wrongful termination, and on her other tort claims, and GRANTS summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs on their claim of ERISA violations.

 I. Undisputed Facts

 Plaintiff Leigh Paris was hired by Korbel sometime in February, 1985. She was terminated on April 15, 1988, after just over three years' employment, for breaching a company confidence regarding another employee.

 Leigh signed three different documents stating that she could be fired, with or without cause, with or without notice, at any time, at the company's option or that she could quit at any time without notice: her employment application, a secrecy agreement, and the receipt for her employee handbook. In the course of her employment, Leigh received revised handbooks in 1987 and 1988.

 In January, 1986, Leigh was promoted to "hospitality assistant." This job entailed giving v.i.p. tours of the winery, and also waitressing at the poolhouse, where executives and their guests often dined. She was told when promoted that whatever she heard in the poolhouse was confidential, and that a breach of this confidentiality could result in termination. Deposition of Leigh Paris at p.62:9-14, attached as Exhibit A to Declaration of Jeffrey Wohl.

 By April 14, Debbie told her husband what Leigh had said. Garrett Krambs became angry because Leigh's information meant that his personal problems were being discussed by Korbel executives, and Garrett had originally asked to go part-time by explaining those personal problems to his supervisor in confidence. Garrett Krambs' understanding was that his supervisor, Tom Gilliand, would not tell Krambs' troubles to anyone else. Garrett called Gilliand to complain not that Leigh knew but, that Gilliand had breached Krambs' confidence. Deposition of Garrett Krambs at p.14:6-7, and p.25.

 Gilliand told Garrett that a company confidence had been breached. Garrett, realizing that Leigh's job might now be in jeopardy, asked if Gilliand could deal with this without mentioning Leigh's name. After speaking with Gilliand, Garrett called Leigh and warned her that her job might be in jeopardy. Id. at 15:22-16:3.

 Gary Heck, President of Korbel, upon learning the above facts from Gilliand, ordered the personnel director, Jani Logsdon, to investigate, and if true, to fire Leigh Paris. Logsdon investigated. Leigh admitted the conversation with Debbie Krambs, and was terminated. Declaration of Jani Logsdon at p.2:23-3:2.

 Garrett Krambs is a pilot at Korbel, which maintains its own fleet of airplanes because of Heck's concern with commercial air travel safety. When Logsdon fired Leigh, Logsdon determined that Leigh had committed "gross misconduct" because Leigh's breach of a company confidence had angered a pilot, thereby risking the safety of Korbel executives who flew with that pilot. Deposition of Logsdon p.78:14-26, attached as Exhibit B to the Declaration of William Fritz in Support of Summary Judgment.

 When she was fired, Leigh Paris was not given any information that she could elect to continue her health insurance benefits at her own cost, as provided for under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986, codified in pertinent part at 29 U.S.C. § 1161 to § 1168 (1989) ("COBRA benefits"), which were 1986 amendments to ERISA. In addition, she was not given written reasons for her discharge.

 At the time she was terminated, Leigh's dependent son, plaintiff Jonathan Northrop was qualified to receive COBRA benefits. Ronald Paris, Leigh's husband, was employed elsewhere, and received health care benefits from his employer as of April 1, 1988, and so was not a beneficiary under the Korbel benefits plan. Deposition of Ronald Paris at p.15:2, attached as Exhibit B to the Declaration of Jeffrey Wohl.

 Jonathan Northrop was injured on July 5, 1988, requiring medical treatment. At the time, Leigh and Jonathan had no medical insurance.

 On July 13, 1988, Leigh telephoned Jani Logsdon and requested information about COBRA benefits, which Leigh had learned of from an insurance agent. *fn1" Logsdon told Leigh that COBRA "prohibited the extension of benefits to individuals who were terminated for gross misconduct." Deposition of Logsdon at p. 104:16-23.

 Leigh and Ronald Paris did not elect to continue their health coverage because the retroactive premium, dating back to April, 1988, would have been more than they had ...


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