Modern Oil employees win suit

Published 11:04 am Saturday, September 20, 2014

COURTLAND—Recently, a jury in Southampton County awarded a group of 10 people who had to sue for a bonus originally promised by their employers. The settlement included not only back pay, but also $20,000 each in damages. But no one’s out spending any money just yet.

Daniel Vinson, an attorney at Stallings and Randall in Courtland, handled much of the case and spoke about the matter. He explained that the 10 clients came from two convenience stores at the Sunoco stations on Armory and North College drives in Franklin and the other just down the street from the law office on Route 58.

In 2011, S.W. Rawls Inc. sold the business to Modern Fuels Inc. Vinson said that Elliott Whitfield, who was president and CEO of Rawls at the time, sent a letter to all the employees explaining there’s a new buyer and that a “smooth transition” was wanted. If these workers stayed for 90 days, there would be a bonus of a month’s pay. They could be terminated without cause in that same period, but could still get the same payment.

When S.W. Rawls sold, a requirement was to change the name within five to six months, and it later became known as Modern Oil Corp.

The purchaser decided to get out of the convenience store operation but didn’t tell anyone, according to Vinson. A third party was brought in to lease the land and buy and sell the gasoline.

“When the deal closes, my clients didn’t know anything. They thought it all stayed the same,” Vinson said.

Further, the company presented letters for the clients to sign that would have made them ineligible for the bonuses.

The employees came to Stallings and Randall and asked if the firm could get the bonuses for them. Vinson remembered that the matter came to his attention in April 2012, and the case has been “17 to 18 months in the making.” The suit was filed against Modern Oil Corp., and the clients went with the attorneys’ recommendation for a jury when the time came for a trial.

“It seemed more appropriate,” he said. “Our clients are everyday people. To have a group of your peers decide an issue such as this seemed appropriate.

“Essentially, we had to prove breach of contract. Ultimately, the jury said it was fraud and awarded punitive damages.”

Although the plaintiffs won, the matter’s not yet settled.

The defendants can appeal the decision within 30 days of the final judgment being signed, which was on Sept. 17. However, no appeal has been filed yet, and there’s also a possibility for an extension.

“Wait and see,” is how Vinson described the situation.