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Lekanof v. St. George Tanaq Corp.

United States District Court, D. Alaska

April 11, 2016

RODNEY LEKANOF, Plaintiff,
v.
ST. GEORGE TANAQ CORPORATION, Defendant.

ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AT DOCKET 14

RALPH R. BEISTLINE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

Plaintiff, Rodney Lekanof, has filed suit against Defendant, St. George Tanaq, (SGT), his former employer, seeking the recovery of separation pay. It is undisputed that Plaintiff worked in the maintenance department for SGT on St. George Island, Alaska, for well over twenty years and that his employment with SGT was terminated in July of 2014. The question raised by way of Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment at Docket 14 is whether or not Plaintiff is entitled, under the undisputed facts of this case, to severance pay. Plaintiff contends that he is in his Opposition filed at Docket 20. Defendant contends that he is not in his Reply at Docket 27.

After throughly reviewing all of the relevant papers, the Court concludes that an evidentiary hearing is not necessary in this matter and therefore vacates the evidentiary hearing set for April 14, 2016.

BACKGROUND

Defendant St. George Tanaq Corporation is a Village Corporation formed pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which serves around 150 residents on the island of St. George, the southernmost of five islands on the Pribilofs.[1] Plaintiff Rodney Lekanof began employment in Defendant's maintenance department on February 6, 1991.[2] As of August 1997, Defendant created a written policy providing separation pay for qualifying employees which was included in the Defendant’s personnel manual up through 2013 ("the 2013 Manual").[3] Specifically, the policy provision read as follows:

An employee having five (5) years of service with [Defendant] is eligible to receive separation pay in the form of one (1) month salary for every two (2) years of pro rata service for a maximum of twelve (12) months pay, based on his or her last salary amount. . . . An employee terminated for cause may not be eligible to receive separation pay.[4]

The 2013 Manual was replaced by an amended manual effective as of April 28, 2014 ("the 2014 Manual"). This new manual superseded all previous employee manuals and memos that may have been issued from time to time on subjects covered by the 2014 Manual. Moreover, the 2014 Manual stated that "[e]mployees have no entitlement to any benefits, compensation, or other terms and conditions offered under any prior Manual" or in other words "no employee is 'grandfathered' under any prior policy or Manual" issued by Defendant.[5] This new manual was distributed to all employees, either physically in the Anchorage office or faxed to them on the island.

About the same time as the 2014 Manual was implemented, Defendant had concerns and complaints about Plaintiff's work performance. As a result Plaintiff’s employment was terminated as of July 2, 2014.[6] Notice of his termination was sent to Plaintiff by certified mail, but there is no indication whether Plaintiff received it.[7] On July 18, 2015, Plaintiff tendered his resignation to Defendant.

Plaintiff filed the present suit on June 24, 2015, alleging that he is entitled to the separation pay discussed in the 2013 Manual. Plaintiff does not assert that his termination for cause was wrongful or without proper justification. He seeks the payment of $50, 080 based solely on his alleged entitlement to separation pay.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment avoids unnecessary trials when there is no dispute as to the facts in the matter before the court.[8] The evidence of the nonmoving party is to be believed and all reasonable inferences are drawn in his favor.[9] Summary judgment is appropriate where "the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”[10] The opposing party must produce sufficient evidence to demonstrate that a triable issue of fact exists.[11] However, once the moving party has met the initial responsibility, the opposing party cannot then meet its burden to show genuine disputed facts simply by offering conclusory statements unsupported by factual data.[12]

DISCUSSION

Defendant argues that the 2013 Manual provision for separation pay was no longer in effect at the conclusion of Plaintiff's employment with Defendant. Defendant also asserts that even if the 2013 Manual provision were in effect at the time of Plaintiff's separation, he was terminated for cause and is therefore ineligible for the separation pay benefit. Plaintiff counters by arguing that the abolishment of the separation pay benefit in the 2014 personnel manual was prohibited by ERISA, that Plaintiff’s separation was the result of resignation rather than termination for cause, and that the separation pay provision was a vested pension benefit.

As termination for cause would seemingly disqualify Plaintiff from separation pay regardless of which personnel manual controls, the ...


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