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HARPER v. LEWIS

August 19, 1960

Civ. A. No. 632-58.
v.
John L. LEWIS et al., Trustees, United Mine Workers of America Welfare and Retirement Fund of 1950, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: WALSH

This matter comes before the Court on a Complaint for declaratory relief and money damages instituted by Plaintiff against Defendants as Trustees of the United Mine Workers of America Welfare and Retirement Fund. Jurisdiction lies in this Court by reason of the amount in controversy and the situs of the property and funds of the trust, and the Defendants' availability for suit. (See Discussion of Jurisdiction, infra.)

The Plaintiff (Claimant) Harper is 82 years of age. *fn1" He alleges that he is and has been fully qualified, since 1946, under the terms and conditions for eligibility under the Trust Indenture, National Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement of 1950, and the pertinent resolutions (Nos. 10, 30, 31, and 32) of the Trustees of the Fund, for a retirement pension benefit in the amount of $ 100 a month.

 Plaintiff began work in the coal mines in 1891, at the age of 13, and became a member of the United Mine Workers of America in 1894 or 1895, and has been a member of the Union ever since.

 By his own admission, Plaintiff has limited formal education, having completed only the fourth grade. While he was a justice of the peace in the town of Piper, Alabama, for a number of years, he states that his deficiency in formal education, such as reading and writing, while in that office was compensated for to some extent by assistance given him by certain people in the town.

 In 1921, Plaintiff began working for the Little Cahaba Mining Company of Piper, Alabama, and was on the company's payroll until August 16, 1945, with the exception of lay-offs, shutdowns, etc. The company thus employed him at the No. 2 Piper Mine from February, 1921 through August 9, 1945, when a fire broke out in that mine. The fire proved serious enough that the mine never reopened. The Plaintiff, and other men who were laid off as a result of the fire, were not rehired to work in another mine, and were given severance slips some time after the fire so they could be eligible for unemployment compensation.

 While Plaintiff was not officially on the payrolls after August 16, 1945, he claims that from August 10, 1945 to September 2, 1946, he did 'extra work', such as tending water pumps and inspecting the mine for fire and gas; that he was 'given a check, on a company check' for these intermittent services which the company allocated among the unemployed miners so that each received small sums from time to time to alleviate their plight. (There was no evidence of this intermittent employment and apparently no written record available.) During the period August, 1945 to September, 1946, Plaintiff continued to make payments for monthly rent and medical expenses to the Company Secretary-Treasurer, as had been his custom.

 The Plaintiff contends that he looked for other work in the area during the above period, but his search was not successful (he was 67 years old in 1945). He now asserts that on September 2, 1946 he 'retired' from the industry, and moved to West Blocton, Alabama, where he and his wife now reside.

 Plaintiff's first written application for a pension was dated August 25, 1950. At that time it was apparently customary for the Union to assist persons submitting applications in filling out forms, etc., and ordinarily an officer or an administrative assistant at the Local Union reviewed such application. The required form had to be certified by the Local and the District officers of the United Mine Workers, and the August 25th application was filed with Local 5827 for this purpose.

 The evidence was to the effect that Mr. Howard Hillhouse, a Union representative, using letterhead stationery with the Fund's name on it, returned the 1950 application to the Plaintiff for the reason that Plaintiff did not qualify for a pension because he apparently retired from the coal industry prior to May 28, 1946. There was no evidence that this application ever reached the Defendants' Washington office, and Defendants allege that Mr. Hillhouse was never their agent and disavow any relationship with him or responsibility for his actions. There was evidence to the effect, however, that at a later date the Defendants may have known of such application and its rejection.

 The Plaintiff filed other applications, one of which was dated March 6, 1953, and was subsequently forwarded to the Welfare Fund headquarters. In this application Plaintiff gave his last date of employment with the Little Cahaba Coal Company as August, 1945, and stated that he was last employed by the Herron, and Kostelic Coal Co., West Blocton, Alabama (from January to October, 1948). This application was formally acted upon by the Trustees, and a Fund form entitled 'Denial of Pension' was subsequently forwarded to Plaintiff, advising him that his application was denied for the reason that 'Applicant has not established proof of regular employment in a classified job in the Coal Industry immediately prior to May 29, 1946.'

 Plaintiff filed a subsequent application, dated November 28, 1955. Apparently no formal action was taken by the Trustees on this application, but Plaintiff was informed by a supervisor in the Review Unit of the Fund that the submission of this application did not warrant further action by the Trustees.

 Additional correspondence was exchanged between the Fund and the Plaintiff. In its last transmission to Plaintiff, dated January 21, 1958, the Fund representative referred to its letter dated November 1, 1957, wherein the reasons for denying Plaintiff's application were more fully set forth. This latter correspondence sets forth three main reasons for the denial: the plaintiff was not regularly employed in a classified job in the coal industry immediately prior to May 29, 1946; he had not completed the required 20 years of satisfactory service within the 30-year period prior to March 6, 1953; and, his employment with the Herron and Kostelic Coal Co. could not be credited because that company was a non-signatory company to the Trust Indenture.

 At no time was a hearing held before the Trustees of the Fund wherein the Claimant (Plaintiff) was accorded the right to present his case, as it were, directly to the Trustees.

 At the trial Defendants introduced evidence to the effect that Plaintiff filed suit in the Tenth Judicial Circuit of Alabama (Action No. 36362-X) against the Trustees of the Fund. The case was dismissed on the grounds that the Court did not have jurisdiction of the matter inasmuch as the Trustees of the Fund were located in Washington, D.C., and the only service had in Alabama, that made upon Mr. Howard Hillhouse, was not effective as against the Fund inasmuch as Hillhouse was not an agent of the Fund ...


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