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Thomas Mervyn, Individually and On Behalf of All Others Similarly v. Nelson Westerberg

December 17, 2012

THOMAS MERVYN, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFF,
v.
NELSON WESTERBERG, INC., NEWESCO, INC., NELSON WESTERBERG INTERNATIONAL, AND ATLAS VAN LINES, INC., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Feinerman

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Thomas Mervyn brought this putative class action against Nelson Westerberg, Inc., Newesco, Inc., Nelson Westerberg International (collectively, "the Westerberg Defendants"), Atlas Van Lines, Inc., and three individuals. The complaint alleges common law claims for breach of contract and unjust enrichment, and statutory claims for various violations of 49 C.F.R. § 376.12, a provision of the Truth-in-Leasing regulations promulgated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ("FMCSA") to implement the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, Pub. L. No. 96-296, 94 Stat. 793 (codified as amended in scattered sections of 49 U.S.C.). Doc.

1. Mervyn voluntarily dismissed the individual defendants. Doc. 27. The Westerberg Defendants and Atlas have separately moved to dismiss the complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Docs. 21, 24. The motions are granted in part and denied in part.

Background

On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court assumes the truth of the complaint's well-pleaded factual allegations but not its legal conclusions. See Munson v. Gaetz, 673 F.3d 630, 632 (7th Cir. 2012); Reger Dev., LLC v. Nat'l City Bank, 592 F.3d 759, 763 (7th Cir. 2010). The court must construe those facts in the light most favorable to Mervyn, the party opposing dismissal. See Gomez v. Randle, 680 F.3d 859, 864 (7th Cir. 2012). The court must also consider "documents attached to the complaint, documents that are critical to the complaint and referred to in it, and information that is subject to proper judicial notice," along with additional facts set forth in Mervyn's brief opposing dismissal, so long as those facts "are consistent with the pleadings." Geinosky v. City of Chicago, 675 F.3d 743, 745 n.1 (7th Cir. 2012). The following facts are set forth as favorably to Mervyn as permitted by the complaint and the other materials that must be considered on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.

Mervyn is an owner-operator of a moving truck and van. Doc. 1 at ¶ 3. He entered into a lease agreement with Nelson Westerberg (now known as Newesco) for the use of his equipment. Id. at ¶¶ 3-4; id. at pp. 16-32 (the agreement between Nelson Westerberg and Mervyn). Nelson Westerberg International is a subsidiary of Newesco. Id. at ¶ 5. Nelson Westerberg acts as an agent for Atlas, a motor carrier that holds a certificate of authority issued by the FMCSA. Id. at ¶¶ 4, 6; id. at pp. 34-35 (the agreement between Nelson Westerberg and Atlas). Atlas is owned by Nelson Westerberg and Atlas's other agents. Id. at ¶ 6. Two of Nelson Westerberg's officers have been members of Atlas's board of directors and one has served on Atlas's executive committee. Id. at ¶¶ 7, 9.

Mervyn's compensation under its lease agreement with Nelson Westerberg is based on a fixed percentage of the gross revenue paid by the shipper to Nelson Westerberg in its capacity as Atlas's agent. Id. at ¶ 24. Mervyn asked Nelson Westerberg for copies of the rated freight bills or their equivalent for the shipments he carried. Id. at ¶¶ 25-26. Nelson Westerberg did not comply with Mervyn's request, which deprived Mervyn of the ability to verify the gross revenue paid by the shippers. Id. at ¶¶ 26-31. Moreover, Nelson Westerberg understated those gross revenues in calculating the amounts owed to Mervyn, which resulted in an underpayment to him. Id. at ¶ 32. Nelson Westerberg also has unlawfully retained escrow funds due Mervyn, has unlawfully required him to purchase packaging material when his trips were within 100 miles of Nelson Westerberg's warehouse, and has unlawfully required him to purchase insurance from or through Nelson Westerberg. Id. at ¶¶ 33-37.

An exhibit attached to Atlas's reply brief purports to show that Nelson Westerberg made rated freight bills available to Mervyn for inspection. Doc. 34 at 2; Doc. 34-1 at 2-3. That exhibit will not be considered at this juncture. As noted above, a Rule 12(b)(6) motion "can be based only on the complaint itself, documents attached to the complaint, documents that are critical to the complaint and referred to in it, and information that is subject to proper judicial notice," as well as on additional facts set forth by the non-movant, Mervyn. Geinosky, 675 F.3d at 745 n.1. Atlas and the Westerberg Defendants are the non-movants here; if they wish the court to consider the rated freight bills or other materials that may not be considered on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, they must file a summary judgment motion under Rule 56. See ibid.

Discussion

The complaint sets forth seven counts. Count I alleges that Defendants failed to provide a rated freight bill or equivalent document before or at the time of settlement, in violation of 49 C.F.R. § 376.12(g); Count II alleges that Defendants failed to provide a rated freight bill on request, in violation of § 376.12(g); Count III alleges that Defendants unlawfully reduced Mervyn's compensation, in violation of §§ 376.12(d) & (g); Count IV alleges that Defendants unlawfully retained escrow funds, in violation of § 376.12(k); Count V alleges that Atlas violated its duty to ensure proper compensation to Mervyn, in violation of § 376.12(m); Count VI alleges that Atlas breached its agreement with Nelson Westerberg, of which Mervyn is a third-party beneficiary; and Count VII alleges unjust enrichment. Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 38-54.

The Westerberg Defendants seek dismissal of Counts I-IV. They correctly note that 49 U.S.C. § 14704(a)(2), which provides a private right of action to enforce 49 C.F.R. § 376.12, permits suit only against a "carrier or broker"; the statute does not mention agents. 49 U.S.C. § 14704(a)(2) ("[a] carrier or broker . is liable for damages"); see Owner-Operator Indep. Drivers Ass'n, Inc. v. Mayflower Transit, LLC, 615 F.3d 790, 792 (7th Cir. 2010). The Westerberg Defendants proceed to argue that Nelson Westerberg is only an agent of Atlas, the carrier, and not a carrier or broker itself. But the complaint alleges that Atlas is owned by its agents, including Nelson Westerberg, and that Nelson Westerberg officers serve on Atlas's board of directors and executive committee. This renders plausible, at least at the pleadings stage, Mervyn's submission that Nelson Westerberg played the dual role of agent and carrier, making it a proper defendant here. Cf. Howard Johnson Co. v. Detroit Local Joint Exec. Bd., 417 U.S. 249, 259 n.5 (1974) (noting that courts may disregard "a mere technical change in the structure or identity of the employing entity, [which is] frequently [undertaken] to avoid the effect of the labor laws, without any substantial change in its ownership or management").

This conclusion finds support in the Westerberg Defendants' own acknowledgment that "a party's role in any given transportation arrangement is determined by the conduct they engaged in, not the registrations or authorities they might hold." Doc. 33 at 3. Under this principle, the formal designation of Atlas as the carrier and Nelson Westerberg as the agent is not dispositive of whether Nelson Westerberg qualifies along with Atlas as a "carrier" for purposes of 49 U.S.C. § 14704(a)(2). If Nelson Westerberg controlled Atlas by virtue of its partial ownership of Atlas and the presence of Nelson Westerberg officers on Atlas's board and executive committee, then Nelson Westerberg's "conduct" (Nelson Westerberg's word) may make it a carrier. This is not necessarily a likely or an inevitable conclusion, but it is a plausible one, which suffices at this stage of the proceedings.

The Westerberg Defendants next argue that the complaint fails to allege the "damages" necessary to state a claim under § 14704(a). The argument is without merit. As noted above, the complaint alleges that the Westerberg Defendants and Atlas underpaid Mervyn and failed to provide him with documentation that would have confirmed the underpayments. That is sufficient to plead damages under § 14704(a). See Nelson v. Signor Trucking, Inc., 2010 WL 3307288 (D. Neb. Aug. 19, 2010) (holding that the owner-operator stated a viable claim where the complaint alleged that "[d]efendants made improper deductions from her weekly compensation, causing her significant economic harm, and then failed to disclose documents verifying the validity of these deductions").

Atlas does not assert an independent substantive challenge to Counts I-VI. Instead, it argues that if Counts I-IV are dismissed as to the Westerberg Defendants, those counts also should be dismissed as to Atlas, as should Counts V-VI, which are brought only against Atlas. Because Counts ...


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