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Alexander v. Standard Oil Co.

OPINION FILED OCTOBER 6, 1977.

J.D. ALEXANDER ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,

v.

STANDARD OIL COMPANY ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Madison County; the Hon. VICTOR J. MOSELE, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE GEORGE J. MORAN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

This case involves a dispute over commission rates between the plaintiffs, individual commission agents, and the defendants, American Oil Company and Standard Oil Company. The plaintiffs are employees of the defendants pursuant to individual contracts of employment, and are also members of the Central States Petroleum Union, Local 123, which serves as the plaintiffs' collective bargaining agent with the defendants.

On September 1, 1970, a "working agreement" was executed between Local 123 and the defendants. The agreement provided that defendants would pay each plaintiff:

(a) a percentage commission based on plaintiffs' sales of specified products, and

(b) a commission based on a percentage of the gross sales price on defendants' direct sales of other products to plaintiffs' customers within each plaintiff's territory (cross-sell commission arrangement).

The plaintiffs' individual contracts with defendants contain similar provisions which are meshed with the union negotiated working agreement, the total relationship between an individual agent and the defendants being governed by both agreements. However, the working agreement is to govern and control all inconsistencies with the individual contracts except as to duration and termination in which case the individual contract governs.

Collective bargaining for a new contract between the defendants and the union commenced prior to the working agreement's expiration date of August 31, 1973. The contract was extended until August 31, 1974, during which time collective bargaining continued. In bargaining for the new contract the defendants maintained that the inflated cost of petroleum products had created windfall profits for the agents and hence proposed:

(1) that plaintiffs' commissions be based on the price in effect on September 1, 1973, and

(2) elimination of the cross-sell commission arrangement.

The defendants announced that this position would be implemented in the event of a bargaining impasse.

On November 21, 1974, the union filed charges before the National Labor Relations Board claiming that defendants violated sections 8(a)(1) and (5) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) (29 U.S.C. § 151 et seq.) by seeking to implement company proposals without bargaining in good faith.

On January 1, 1975, defendants began paying commissions to plaintiffs based on the September 1, 1973, price rate and discontinued the cross-sell commissions.

On May 9, 1975, the Acting Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board refused to issue a complaint on the charges filed by the union. This decision was upheld on appeal by the General Counsel's office on July 16, 1975.

On March 1, 1976, the plaintiffs filed a complaint against the defendants in the circuit court of Madison County alleging approximately $400,000 in damages for breach of contract. Damages were based upon nonpayment of cross-sell commissions and the difference between commissions actually paid (based on September 1, 1973, prices) and a higher rate claimed, for sales made after January 1, 1975. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that jurisdiction of the court was preempted by the National Labor Relations Act. Agents who chose not to become jobbers were either continued as agents or terminated according to a "Mutual Cancellation of Employment" and a "Final Settlement Agreement." Both of the agreements contained language which could be pleaded in bar of the damage claim. Consequently, plaintiffs moved the trial court to restrain and enjoin defendants from requiring plaintiffs to sign such agreements as a condition of conversion to jobber status.

An evidentiary hearing regarding defendants' motion to dismiss and plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction was held on March 22, 1976. On March 29, 1976, the trial court denied both the motion to dismiss and the motion for a preliminary injunction. Defendants then filed a motion to reconsider, requesting in the alternative the specific findings necessary under Supreme Court Rule 308 (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 110A, par. 308), which led to this appeal. Plaintiffs filed a motion in opposition thereto and renewed their request for a preliminary injunction in the event the trial court made the requisite findings for this appeal. The trial court denied ...


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