Jeffrey Sgro v. World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.

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Superior Court of Connecticut.

Jeffrey Sgro v. World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.

CV106003367S

Decided: December 16, 2010

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION RE DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO STRIKE

The plaintiff, Jeffrey Sgro, has brought this action against the defendant, his former employer, World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. (WWE), in four counts:  Count I-Withholding of Wages Earned;  Count II-Wrongful Discharge;  Count III-Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress;  and Count IV-Slander.

The defendant, WWE, has filed a motion to strike the complaint in its entirety arguing that each count is devoid of factual allegations sufficient to support a legally cognizable claim for relief.

“A motion to strike admits all facts well pleaded;  it does not admit legal conclusions or the truth or accuracy of opinions stated in the pleadings.”   Faulkner v. United Technologies Corp., 240 Conn. 576, 588, 693 A.2d 293 (1997).  “The court must construe the facts in the complaint most favorably to the plaintiff.”  Id., 580.  “[I]t does not admit legal conclusions or the truth or accuracy of opinions stated in the pleadings.”  Id., 588.   If facts provable in the complaint would support a cause of action, the motion to strike must be denied” (emphasis added).  Peter-Michael, Inc. v. Sea Shell Associates, 244 Conn. 269, 270-71 (1999).

AS TO COUNT I WITHOLDING OF WAGES EARNED.

The plaintiff alleges that he was entitled to a Management Incentive Program (MIP) bonus payable in March 2010 for his performance in 2009, and that the defendant wrongfully terminated his employment in January 24, 2010, to avoid having to pay it to him.   He claims that the withholding of the 2009 bonus was a violation of public policy as articulated in Sections 31-71a and 31-71c, C.G.S.

In its motion to strike, the defendant argues that the bonus which the plaintiff claims to have been wrongfully deprived of does not constitute “wages” as that term is defined in the statutes.   Citing a number of cases, most specifically Ziotas v. The Reardon Lawfirm, P.C., 296 Conn. 579 (2010), the defendant makes the claim that by his own allegations, the plaintiff has conceded that the bonus is determined by profits earned by the defendant corporation as a result of the “activities of managers and their performances” and “were to be paid to all eligible management personnel.”   While he further alleges in his complaint that, “the plaintiff's performance in 2009 was exemplary and the earnings ․ was record setting for the defendant in 2009,” he does not allege that the bonus he was looking forward to was based solely on factors within his personal control.

In Ziotas, the Supreme Court held, “bonuses that are awarded solely on a discretionary basis, and are not linked solely to the ascertainable efforts of the particular employee, are not wages under § 31-71a(3).”

In Weems v. Citigroup, Inc., 289 Conn. 769, (2010), the Court held, “the wording of the statute, in expressly linking earnings to an employee's labor or services personally rendered, contemplates a more direct relationship between an employee's own performance and the compensation to which that employee is entitled.   Discretionary additional remuneration, as a share in a reward to all employees for the success of the employer's entrepreneurship, falls outside the protection of the statute,” p. 780-81.

In Weems, at page 778, the Court considered whether bonuses that were discretionary and based on the performance and profitability of the employer's business came within the statute and concluded that “bonuses that are awarded solely on a discretionary basis, and are not linked solely to the ascertainable efforts of the particular employee, are not wages under § 31-71a(3).”

In the Zlotas case, the Supreme Court, in reviewing the reasoning of the trial court, noted, “The [trial] court then concluded that the bonus, as alleged in the second count of the second amended complaint, was an arbitrary figure determined by the success or lack of success of all members of the firm, with no relation to any actual services performed by the plaintiff.  [T]he plaintiff thereafter repleaded the second count in his third amended complaint ․ the court held that that count suffered from the same defect as the second count in the second amended complaint in that it [did] not describe a bonus that accrued as a result of the plaintiff's personal efforts alone ․” Ziotas, supra, p. 585.

In the case of Swihart v. Country Home Bakers, Inc., the trial court explained that, “the problem the Court has with these allegations is that ․ there is no indication by way of factual allegation that, at the time of the termination, the bonus and fringe benefits referred to had already vested under the terms of the employment offer ․” Superior Court, judicial district of Ansonia/Milford at Milford Docket No. 60945 (July 16, 1999) (Corradino, J.).  “There can be no claim for unpaid wages under § 31-72 or assertion that wages have been withheld under § [31-71e] unless the definition of ‘wages' is met ․” Id. This Court is having the same problem with the allegations in Count I of the instant case.

For the foregoing reasons, the Court finds that the allegations in Count I alleging wrongful withholding of wages earned, as pled, do not support a legally cognizable claim for relief and the defendant's motion to strike that count is granted.

AS TO COUNT II WRONGFUL DISCHARGE

As the plaintiff notes in his own brief in opposition to the motion to strike, “the key to the establishment of a claim for wrongful discharge is clearly that the employer's conduct leading up to the discharge must violate a public policy.”  Morris v. Hartford Courant Co., 200 Conn. 676 (1968).

The public policy which the plaintiff relies upon is the alleged violation by the defendant of Sec. 31-71a and 31-71c, C.G.S. As previously discussed, this Court has found that the plaintiff's claims regarding the failure by the defendant to pay him wages in the form of a bonus, as pled, do not support such a claim.   In addition, the plaintiff has not specifically alleged that his dismissal contravened any judicially conceived notion of public policy.   While he does argue that the dismissal was a ruse to avoid having to pay him a sizeable bonus, that fact, alone, is not sufficient to permit a finding of a public policy violation.

For the foregoing reasons, the defendant's motion to strike Count II is hereby granted.

AS TO COUNT III INTENTIONAL INFLICTION OF EMOTIONAL DISTRESS

The plaintiff claims that his discharge by WWE for his reported insubordination was merely a ruse concocted to avoid the payment to him of his 2009 bonus.   In Count III he alleges that by falsely accusing the plaintiff of insubordination, the defendant has caused the intentional inflict of emotional distress.   The defendant has moved to strike this count on the ground that he has failed to allege extreme and outrageous behavior on the part of the defendant.  “Whether a defendant's conduct is sufficient to satisfy the requirement that it be extreme and outrageous is initially a question for the court to determine.   Only where reasonable minds disagree does it become an issue for the jury.”  Appleton v. Board of Education, 254 Conn. 205, 210 (2000).

“Liability has been found only where the conduct has been so outrageous in character and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized society.”  Id. 210-11.

Our Courts have held that even conduct which is “crude, obnoxious, boorish, inappropriate and insensitive, committed in an atmosphere supposed to be dominated by professionalism” and which may be “upsetting and embarrassing to the plaintiff ․ does not rise to the level required to sustain a legally sufficient claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.”   Ranciato v. Saxe Doernberger & Vita, P.C., No CV030478651, 2004 Conn.Super. Lexis 2844, at *13 (Conn.Super. Oct. 5, 2004).

While the act of falsely accusing the plaintiff of insubordination, if proven, may be actionable, this Court cannot find, under the allegations as pled, that it rises to the level of intentional infliction of emotional distress in this case.   For that reason the defendant's motion to strike Count III is hereby granted.

AS TO COUNT IV SLANDER

The plaintiff has alleged that the defendant's false charges of insubordination “were made with malice and intent to harm the plaintiff” and “are likely to severely hurt and restrict the plaintiff in future employment.”

The defendant has moved to strike Count IV alleging slander for the reason that this allegation is devoid of any claim that the insubordination allegation was ever communicated or published to anyone.   The inference is that it was communicated by Mr. Kalinowski to Mr. McMahon, the president and CEO of WWE because it was McMahon who allegedly issued the order for the plaintiff to be terminated from his employment.

As noted in Faulkner, herein above, a motion to strike admits all facts well pleaded;  it does not admit legal conclusions or accuracy of opinions stated in the pleadings.  Faulkner, supra p. 588.

For that the Court finds that the allegations in Count IV, as pled, do not support a legally cognizable claim for relief and the defendant's motion to strike said count is hereby granted.

BY THE COURT

JOSEPH W. DOHERTY, JUDGE

Doherty, Joseph W., J.

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