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RICH v. LANIER WORLDWIDE

January 10, 1995

VINCENT L. CARTELLI and ANDREW D. RICH, Plaintiffs, against LANIER WORLDWIDE, INC., Defendant.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: VINCENT L. BRODERICK

 MEMORANDUM ORDER

 I

 This lawsuit grows out of a dispute between plaintiffs and defendant Lanier Worldwide, Inc. (the "employer") concerning the adequacy of bonus payments due plaintiffs for producing business for the employer. The dispute focuses in part on whether equipment transactions negotiated by plaintiffs on behalf of defendant constituted "operating" or "capital" leases and whether ability of the customer to cancel a transaction controls the characterization of the arrangement for bonus purposes. These characterizations present questions involving accounting issues as well as concerning whether accounting, company, or industry practice is controlling. The parties also dispute whether bonuses were entirely within management's discretion or were benefits to which plaintiffs were entitled.

 Defendant has moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. Document discovery has been had but no depositions taken.

 Defendant's motion is granted with respect to the prima facie tort and emotional distress claims; the motion is denied without prejudice with respect to the contract and Labor Law claims.

 II

 The bonus arrangements which concededly exist with respect to plaintiffs' roles in obtaining business for the employer are written in language which is difficult to apply to the facts of this dispute without further information about the events at issue, and the practice of the employer in regard to bonuses. Were the language ultimately found to be unambiguous and not to require resort to parol evidence, the full circumstances of the particular dispute would still be important in determining whether genuine issues of material fact exist. Whether deposition testimony regarding employer practices would be sufficiently pertinent to affect construction of the language is likewise difficult to determine without knowing what such testimony would indicate.

 Similarly, the question of when bonuses are wages under New York law is fact-intensive and is difficult to resolve without background concerning the role of bonuses in the compensation system of the employer. Granting summary judgment without further information as to these branches of this suit would be to act in a vacuum. *fn1" The opportunity for deposition discovery must be provided before summary judgment can be granted in regard to plaintiffs' bonus and wage claims.

 III

 Prima facie tort is a backup concept which, while it may overlap with other sources of tort law, is primarily significant when other sources of law fail to provide guidance to courts in dealing with a given type of dispute which generates a tort claim. Prima facie tort may be found only in the narrow circumstance when harm is deliberately caused with no purpose but that harm, rather than even partially for other reasons. See Durham Industries v. North River Insurance, 673 F.2d 37, 39-41 (2d Cir 1982) (defining and tracing history of the doctrine); Health Loom v. Soho Plaza, AD2d , 618 N.Y.S.2d 287 (1st Dept 1994).

 To qualify as a prima facie tort, the harmful act must be committed for the sake of the harm as an end in itself. Aikens v. Wisconsin, 195 U.S. 194, 203, 49 L. Ed. 154, 25 S. Ct. 3 (1904) (Holmes, J.), quoted in ATI v. Ruder & Finn, 42 N.Y.2d 454, 458, 398 N.Y.S.2d 864, 368 N.E.2d 1230 (1977).

 In this instance, there is no claim that Rich had any contractual or other right to the managerial position from which he was demoted by the employer. Employer-employee disputes over compensation, especially if involving others as well as the direct disputant, can obviously be regarded by an employer as affecting the effectiveness in the workplace of an employee in a high enough position to be able to be demoted without being dismissed. Failure to take the more drastic and more painful (to Rich) path of dismissing him ...


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