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Murphy v. Republic National Distributing Co., LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 5, 2014

ROBERT MURPHY,
v.
REPUBLIC NATIONAL DISTRIBUTING COMPANY, LLC., et al.,

MEMORANDUM

J. FREDERICK MOTZ, District Judge.

Plaintiff Robert Murphy ("Murphy") brings this suit against Republic National Distributing Company, LLC ("RNDC"), his former employer, for alleged violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 623, et seq., wrongful discharge, negligent hiring and retention, respondeat superior, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Murphy also asserts claims against individual defendants John Deitz, Gary Herd and Ned Parsons ("individual defendants")-who are all one-time and/or current employees of RNDC-for wrongful discharge and intentional infliction of emotional distress. RNDC now moves for judgment on the pleadings with respect to all claims except for Murphy's claim arising under the ADEA. Individual defendants now move to dismiss the claims against them. The parties have fully briefed the issues and no oral argument is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, the motions will be granted.

BACKGROUND

Murphy, a thirty year veteran of the wine and liquor sales industry, was employed by the alcohol distributor RNDC for seven years until he was fired on October 7, 2010. According to Murphy-who was 63 years old when his tenure at RNDC ended-he was both fired, and replaced, by employees who are at least twenty years younger than him. Prior to being fired, Murphy alleges that there were major internal and external problems at RNDC that marred his employment with the company. Internally, Murphy chafed at what he deemed the "ra-ra boys club" atmosphere perpetrated by his much younger superviser, Ned Parsons ("Parsons"). (Compl. ¶ 38; ECF No. 31 at 7). Parsons, Murphy alleges, permitted other workers to circulate pornography and explicit photographs in front of RNDC's female employees. Murphy also contends that Parsons regularly singled him out in front of his co-workers with degrading comments about his age. At various times during staff meetings and general office time, Parsons allegedly remarked that Murphy had "been around longer than dirt, " came "from the dinosaur age" and "listen[ed] [to] Sinatra." (Compl. ¶ 13; ECF No. 31 at 4). According to Murphy, these comments formed part of a larger pattern of abuse, in which Parsons humiliated Murphy by implying that Murphy's sales performance suffered because of his age. Murphy additionally suggests, however, that Parsons' abuse stemmed from Parsons' latent resentment regarding Murphy's comparatively greater experience in-and familiarity with-the alcohol industry's standards, rules and regulations.

Parsons' workplace insensitivity, however-both in general and with respect to Murphy's age and experience-was the not the only basis for tension between Murphy and his superiors at RNDC. According to Murphy, Parsons sought to advance liquor sales and procure partnerships with various customers through a series of bribes and kickbacks. Although Murphy maintains that he (1) refused to distribute gift cards and cash handouts as instructed, and (2) brought an internal complaint regarding these practices in January 2010, Parsons allegedly disregarded these concerns and continued as before. Finding his RNDC superiors-including both John Deitz, RNDC's former president, and Gary Herd, Parsons' direct superviser in 2010-unreceptive, Murphy funneled his protest through external channels, filing a whistleblowing complaint with the Maryland Comptroller later that year. Around this time, Murphy alleges that RNDC reduced his salary, removed him from his former sales region and escalated the verbal abuse regarding his age. The ensuing stress, Murphy contends, caused him to become sick and depressed, culminating in a severe health scare at a company meeting in August 2010, where Murphy suffered stroke-like symptoms and was transported to the University of Maryland Hospital's emergency room. Unfortunately for Murphy, his relationship with his employer did not improve following this incident, and RNDC terminated his employment in October of that year.

Believing that RNDC improperly fired him both (1) because of his age, and (2) in retaliation for filing an external complaint regarding the company's sales practices, Murphy filed suit against RNDC, Parsons, Herd and Deitz on September 18, 2013, alleging violations under both state and federal law. (ECF No. 1). After Murphy filed a second amended complaint on June 19, 2014, [1] RNDC's subsequent answer incorporated its previous motion for judgment on the pleadings with respect to Counts II, III, IV, and V. Similarly, in their answer to the second amended complaint, individual defendants incorporated their motion to dismiss with respect to Counts II and V.[2]

STANDARD

"[T]he purpose of Rule 12(b)(6) is to test the sufficiency of a complaint and not to resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses." Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted) (quoting Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999)). When ruling on such a motion, the court must "accept the well-pled allegations of the complaint as true" and "construe the facts and reasonable inferences derived therefrom in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Ibarra v. United States, 120 F.3d 472, 474 (4th Cir. 1997). "Even though the requirements for pleading a proper complaint are substantially aimed at assuring that the defendant be given adequate notice of the nature of a claim being made against him, they also provide criteria for defining issues for trial and for early disposition of inappropriate complaints." Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009).

To survive a motion to dismiss, the factual allegations of a complaint "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, ... on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal citations and alterations omitted). Thus, the plaintiff's obligation is to set forth sufficiently the "grounds of his entitlement to relief, " offering more than "labels and conclusions." Id. (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). "[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not show[n]'-that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)).[3]

ANALYSIS

I. Count II: Murphy's Claim for Wrongful Discharge in Violation of Maryland Public Policy, with respect to both RNDC and Individual Defendants

In Count II of the amended complaint, Murphy alleges that defendants wrongfully discharged him in violation of Maryland public policy, by retaliating against him for reporting a whistleblowing complaint to the Comptroller of Maryland. According to defendants, however, Murphy has failed to identify with particularity any public policy allegedly violated by defendants' conduct that does not already provide Murphy with a civil remedy. For this reason, defendants argue that Murphy has failed to state a claim for wrongful discharge under Maryland tort law.[4] I agree.

In Maryland, the tort of wrongful discharge arose as a narrow exception to the rule governing at-will employment. In general, an at-will employee, such as Murphy, enjoys an employment contract of infinite duration that is terminable, by either party, for any reason whatsoever. Wholey v. Sears Roebuck, 370 Md. 38, 48, 803 A.2d 48 (Md. 2002). When the motivation for an employee's termination breaches a "clear mandate of public policy, " however, the employee may assert a claim for abusive or wrongful discharge. See Terry v. Legato Systems, Inc., 241 F.Supp.2d 566, 569 (D. Md. 2003).

To preserve the narrow scope of a wrongful discharge action, courts have imposed a high bar for plaintiffs attempting to state a claim. See generally Ewing v. Koppers Co., 312 Md. 45, 49, 537 A.2d 1173, 1174 (Md. 1988) (observing that the wrongful discharge tort was intended to remedy "particularly reprehensible conduct"). A plaintiff must both "specifically identify" the public policy that he alleges was violated, and establish that a "clear mandate of public policy" exists. Terry, 241 F.Supp.2d at 569. To satisfy the "clear mandate of public policy" requirement, employees must locate the relevant public policy in a concrete source-namely: a "preexisting, unambiguous, and particularized pronouncement by constitution, enactment, or prior judicial decision, directing, prohibiting, or protecting the conduct in question"-rather than in conjecture or abstract interpretation. Porterfield v. Mascari II, Inc., 142 Md.App. 134, 788 A.2d 242, 245 ...


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