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Hackney v. Lincoln National Life Insurance Co.

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Louisville

August 4, 2017

JAMES W. HACKNEY PLAINTIFF
v.
LINCOLN NATIONAL LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY and VASCULAR SOLUTIONS, INC. DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CHARLES R. SIMPSON III, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. Introduction

         This matter is before the Court on the motion of Plaintiff James W. Hackney to certify a question to the Supreme Court of Kentucky, ECF No. 180. Defendant Vascular Solutions, Inc. (VSI) responded, ECF No. 181. Hackney replied, ECF No. 182. For the reasons explained below, the Court will deny Hackney's motion to certify a question to the Supreme Court of Kentucky.

         II. Background

         In 2011, Hackney was terminated from his position with VSI for failing to return from a seven-month medical leave. See Order 5/14/2015 2-3, ECF No. 157. Hackney maintained that he did not return to VSI because his hypoparathyroidism rendered him totally disabled. Id. But VSI considered Hackney's failure to return to his position as “job abandonment” and refused to pay him severance as was required under Hackney's employment agreement. Id. During his leave, Hackney applied for and was denied benefits under VSI's Salary Continuation Plan, which was administered by Lincoln National Life Insurance Company (“Lincoln”). Id.

         Hackney filed a variety of claims against VSI and Lincoln. Hackney claimed that VSI breached the employment agreement, the Salary Continuation Plan, and its duty of good faith and fair dealing under the employment agreement and the Salary Continuation Plan. Compl. ¶¶ 41-48, ECF No. 1-1. He also asserted that VSI failed to pay him wages in violation of Kentucky Revised Statute § 337.385. Id. ¶¶ 49-55. Hackney also claimed that VSI and Lincoln engaged in the unlicensed practice of medicine in violation of Kentucky Revised Statute § 311.560. Id. ¶¶ 71-75. Summary judgment was later granted to VSI and Lincoln on all claims. Order 5/30/2015 1, ECF No. 124; Order 5/13/2015 1, ECF No. 158.

         The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the Court's grant of summary judgment on Hackney's breach of contract claims and his breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing claims. Hackney v. Lincoln Nat'l Fire Ins. Co., 657 F. App'x 563, 579 (6th Cir. 2016). The Sixth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment on all other claims. Id. In considering the validity of the employment contract, the Sixth Circuit wrote that “the term ‘job abandonment' is ambiguous. The contract does not define the term, and this lack of specificity is problematic because of the term's multiple reasonable meanings.” Id. at 573. The appellate court later stated:

It is unclear whether Kentucky law contemplates entering judgment against the drafter of an ambiguous contract as a matter of law or if, because “job abandonment” is ambiguous, the meaning of the term is now a question for the fact-finder, who should construe it with the aid of extrinsic evidence of the parties' intent. In light of this uncertainty, and in an abundance of caution, we conclude that “job abandonment” is ambiguous as a matter of law, and remand the case so that the parties may present extrinsic evidence of their intent to the district court, if such evidence exists.

Id. at 573.

         In February 2017, after the Sixth Circuit remanded the case, the parties appeared before this Court for a pretrial conference. Not. Filing Official Tr. 1, ECF No. 173. In relevant part, the parties discussed the intended meaning of “job abandonment” included in Hackney's employment agreement. Order 2/08/2017 1, ECF No. 175. The Court ordered the parties to jointly report a potential certification of law to be submitted to the Supreme Court of Kentucky that would seek an answer to the Sixth Circuit's question of whether Kentucky law “contemplates entering judgment against the drafter of an ambiguous contract as a matter of law” or “if the meaning of the term is now a question for the fact-finder, who should construe it with the aid of extrinsic evidence of the parties' intent.” See id. at 2.

         The parties were unable to agree on a potential certification of law to be submitted to the Supreme Court of Kentucky or any “statement of all facts relevant to the questions certified, ” as required by Rule 76.37 of the Kentucky Rules of Civil Procedure. Hackney then independently moved to certify the following question to the Supreme Court of Kentucky:

Whether in construing an ambiguous and outcome determinative contractual term in a standard-form employment agreement, a reviewing court should resolve the ambiguity against the drafting party and enter judgment in favor of the non-drafting party.

         Mot. Certify ...


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