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Santangelo v. New York Life Insurance Co.

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

August 7, 2014

PETER SANTANGELO, Plaintiff,
v.
NEW YORK LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

NATHANIEL M. GORTON, District Judge.

This case arises from the termination of a Field Underwriters Contract pursuant to which plaintiff Peter Santangelo ("plaintiff" or "Santangelo") sold insurance policies for over 35 years on behalf of defendant New York Life Insurance Company ("defendant" or "NYLIC"). Plaintiff asserts numerous contract-based claims against defendant and, more recently, has amended his pleadings to assert claims of age discrimination under the Americans with Disability Act and the Massachusetts Anti-Discrimination Statute.

Defendant moves for summary judgment on all claims asserted in two separate complaints. For the reasons that follow, defendant's motions will be allowed and judgment will enter in favor of defendant on all pending claims.

I. Background

A. Nature of Plaintiff's Relationship With NYLIC

In September, 1968, Santangelo entered into a Field Underwriter's Contract ("the Contract") with NYLIC. The Contract authorized him to act as an Agent of NYLIC and sell its products. The Contract provided that

Neither the term Field Underwriter'... nor anything contained herein or in any of the rules or regulations of [NYLIC] shall be construed as creating the relationship of employer and employee between [NYLIC] and the Field Underwriter. Subject to the provisions hereof and within the scope of authority hereby granted, the Field Underwriter, as an independent contractor, shall be free to exercise his own discretion and judgment with respect to the persons from whom he will solicit applications, and with respect to the time, place, method and manner of solicitation and of performance hereunder. But the Field Underwriter agrees that he will not conduct himself in such a manner as to affect adversely the good standing or reputation of [NYLIC].

Field Underwriter's Contract, Docket No. 102, Ex. 1, ¶ 5. Both parties had the right to terminate the Contract with or without cause on 30 days notice. Id . ¶ 9.

NYLIC contracts with two kinds of Agents: Training Allowance Subsidy Agents ("TAS Agents") and Established Agents. TAS Agents are agents who have worked in the life insurance industry for no more than three years. They receive intensive training and ongoing support from NYLIC and NYLIC considers them to be employees of NYLIC. After three years, TAS Agents become Established Agents.

At the time he was terminated, plaintiff had served as an Established Agent for over 30 years. As an Established Agent, plaintiff had total discretion over which clients to solicit. Occasionally NYLIC would refer potential clients to him and he would accept the clients to show NYLIC that he was interested in receiving referrals in the future. Plaintiff also decided when and where to meet prospective clients and what sales pitch he would employ. He was licensed in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New York, Ohio, California and Massachusetts and therefore was limited to soliciting business within those states. He was also not permitted by NYLIC to sell certain kinds of policies, including indexed annuities and "strangerowned life insurance policies."

Plaintiff set his own schedule. He did not report to NYLIC on a daily basis and was not required to spend 40 hours per week selling NYLIC products although NYLIC did expect him to meet certain sales goals. He had to attend one training annually and attended other non-mandatory "sales meetings" on an irregular basis. He cannot recall any regular meetings with management at NYLIC other than meetings about his alleged non-compliance with NYLIC policy late in his tenure.

Plaintiff did not receive a salary from NYLIC and was instead compensated solely through sales-based commissions. Plaintiff did not receive medical leave or vacation leave from NYLIC. NYLIC did not withhold state or federal income from its payment of commissions to plaintiff. Along with NYLIC products, he sold the products of SB Life Insurance Company, John Hancock, Guardian, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield and received commissions for his sales from those companies.

Plaintiff had the option to sell NYLIC products out of his home but instead chose to rent office space at a building rented by NYLIC in Waltham. He bought his own office supplies and furniture and was free to hire, at his own expense, clerical staff or assistants to help him sell insurance products, subject to a background check of any candidate by NYLIC. His ingoing and outgoing mail was monitored by NYLIC and he was required to submit proposed correspondence to the Compliance Department for approval. Had plaintiff chosen to work from home or from a non-NYLIC building, he would have been required to post appropriate signage, report all incoming mail to NYLIC and allow NYLIC to regularly review his files.

B. Termination of Plaintiff by NYLIC

NYLIC Agents are not permitted to ask their customers to sign blank forms or to retain blank forms signed by customers in customer files. NYLIC monitors compliance with that policy and otherwise supervises its Agents through mandatory, unannounced, annual face-to-face supervisory interviews and inspections of Agents and their customer files.

John Quarella, Jr. ("Quarella"), a Senior Agency Standards Consultant for NYLIC, conducted several such reviews of plaintiff and his files between 2006 and 2008. In July, 2006, Quarella discovered two forms in plaintiff's files that were signed by the customers but otherwise incomplete. Quarella discussed the violation with plaintiff and, in September, 2006, NYLIC issued to plaintiff a "Letter of Reprimand".

In September, 2007, Quarella conducted another annual review of plaintiff's files and discovered three signed but otherwise incomplete forms. Quarella discussed his findings with plaintiff and informed him that he could be terminated if he continued to violate company policy. In March, 2008, NYLIC issued a "Letter of Severe Reprimand" based upon plaintiff's repeated violations of company policy.

In April, 2008, NYLIC decided to place plaintiff under "Enhanced Supervision" during which he would be subjected to additional unannounced reviews. Plaintiff contends that he was unaware that he was under "Enhanced Supervision" but admits that he knew that he was being subjected to more frequent reviews and supervised more closely than in the past. He states that it was NYLIC policy to provide Agents who were placed on Enhanced Supervision status with extra training but notes that he was not offered and did not receive such training.

During an unannounced review in December, 2008, Quarella discovered signed but otherwise incomplete forms in two files. "Zone Agency Standards Officer" James A. Robertson III ("Robertson") met with Quarella and plaintiff and later recommended that plaintiff be terminated.

On April 1, 2009, plaintiff received a letter from the NYLIC human resources department dated March 27, 2009. The letter referenced his upcoming retirement on May 1, 2009 and discussed the benefits he stood to receive under the NYLIC Retirement Plan. Plaintiff called the human resources department to inquire about the letter the following day.

On the same day, April 2, 2009, plaintiff received by facsimile a letter dated the preceding day notifying him of his termination. The letter stated that his Contract would be terminated on May 1, 2009 and did not state the reason for his termination. Plaintiff claims that he did not receive a justification for his termination until December, 2009.

C. Denial of Access to Office Space and Files

Despite the fact that the letter stated that the termination would become effective on May 1, 2009, NYLIC deactivated plaintiff's key-card so that he could not access his office space in the NYLIC building in Waltham, Massachusetts and permanently disconnected him from its computer network beginning on April 7, 2009. He continued to pay rent for use of the office space through May 31, 2009 despite being unable to access the property. On May 6, 2009, defendant issued a cease and desist order that threatened plaintiff with criminal prosecution if he tried to access his office. Plaintiff contends that he asked several times to have his desk, chair, bookshelf, filing cabinet and "book of business" returned to him but that property was never returned.

Plaintiff asserts that at the time he was terminated and for the next several years, the defendant hired hundreds of younger agents into plaintiff's "agent pool" and none of the new hires had as much experience with plaintiff. His Amended Complaint does not, however, contain any specific information about the age or identity of any new hires or whether any were hired to replace him. He also contends that he did not deserve to be issued Letters of Reprimand and that the fact that he received such letters is evidence of defendant's discriminatory animus and intent to use plaintiff's "book of business" to aid the young agents it hired subsequent to his termination.

D. Eligibility for Retirement Benefits

Plaintiff was put on "retired-terminated-active" status following his termination and was therefore eligible to receive retirement benefits under the NYLIC Retirement Plan, a defined benefit pension plan for NYLIC Agents. He continues to receive certain retirement benefits ...


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