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Clark v. Feder Semo & Bard

December 17, 2007

DENISE M. CLARK, PLAINTIFF,
v.
FEDER SEMO & BARD, P.C., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Denise Clark brings this action pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. In her complaint, she alleges that she was improperly denied almost 50% of the value of her retirement benefits in violation of ERISA's anti-cutback protection for accrued benefits, ERISA's disclosure requirements, and fiduciary duties imposed by ERISA. Currently before the Court is defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings. Upon careful consideration of the motion, the parties' memoranda, the applicable law, and the entire record, the Court will grant in part and deny in part defendants' motion.

BACKGROUND

The following facts are alleged by plaintiff, who is a participant in the Feder, Semo and Bard, P.C. Retirement Plan and Trust ("Plan"). Am. Compl. ¶ 3. Plaintiff worked as an attorney at Feder, Semo and Bard, P.C. ("FS&B"), in the District of Columbia for almost ten years. Id. In October 2000, plaintiff became the managing partner of the firm, and she remained in that position until July 2002, when plaintiff terminated her employment with the firm. Id. Based upon the retirement plan documents, plaintiff believed she was vested under the Plan and would receive her accrued benefits on or after August 1, 2007, five years after she terminated her employment with the firm. Id. ¶ 10.

In September 2003, the Board of Directors of FS&B amended the Plan to freeze the accrual of future retirement benefits effective after September 20, 2003, and on September 26, 2005, the Board approved an amendment that terminated the Plan. Id. ¶¶ 11, 15. Days later, on September 30, 2005, the firm ceased the active practice of law. Id. ¶ 4. Plaintiff thereafter received a letter from FS&B, which stated that all benefits would be distributed as a result of the Plan's termination. Id. ¶ 16. The letter included a statement summarizing plaintiff's benefits, which indicated plaintiff was entitled to a lump sum benefit of $166,541.71. Id.

Believing she was entitled to more, plaintiff requested the lump sum distribution of $166,541.71 and reserved the right to pursue any difference between that distribution and the value of her accrued benefits. Id. ¶ 17. After plaintiff inquired about the benefits calculation, outside counsel for FS&B sent plaintiff an e-mail on October 5, 2005, informing her that the lump sum actuarial equivalent of her $4,860.55 per month annuity benefit was $312,380.83 as of October 31, 2005, but that her benefits had been "pro-rata reduced to match the plan's assets." Id. ¶ 18. Plaintiff exercised her right under the Plan to appeal the benefit determination, but defendants denied her appeal. Id. ¶¶ 19, 20. Plaintiff subsequently made two requests for reconsideration, which defendants responded to and denied with explanation. Id. ¶ 21.

Plaintiff thereafter filed a two-count complaint in this Court on March 13, 2007, and defendants filed their answer on April 6, 2007. See Docket Entry Nos. 1, 6. At the Initial Scheduling Conference held with the Court on May 11, 2007, defendants noted their position that plaintiff's complaint did not assert cognizable claims under ERISA. Following the conference, the Court ordered plaintiff to file an amended complaint by not later than June 1, 2007, and plaintiff complied. See May 11, 2007 Minute Order. The amended complaint is nearly identical to her original complaint, with the addition of Claim Three for "Breaches of ERISA's Fiduciary Duties." See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 33-34.

Defendants have moved for judgment on the pleadings. In defendants' motion, they originally requested judgment on the pleadings for the entirety of plaintiff's amended complaint. Defendants asserted that plaintiff's first two causes of action had no basis in law because they did not specify whether the claims fell under ERISA § 502(a)(1)(B), § 502(a)(2), or § 502(a)(3). Defendants also argued that the third cause of action for breach of fiduciary duty should be dismissed because the relief sought was otherwise available under § 502(a)(1)(B) as a claim for benefits. Plaintiff's opposition asserts that her amended complaint seeks relief pursuant to sections 502(a)(1)(B), 502(a)(2), and 502(a)(3), even though those provisions are never explicitly cited in the amended complaint. Defendants now accept plaintiff's posture and argue that the only claims that should remain are plaintiff's claims for benefits brought pursuant to § 502(a)(1)(B). As discussed below, this Court agrees, and defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings therefore will be granted in part and denied in part.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), a motion for judgment on the pleadings shall be granted if the moving party demonstrates that "no material fact is in dispute and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Peters v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., 966 F.2d 1483, 1485 (D.C. Cir. 1992) (internal quotation omitted). The appropriate standard for reviewing a motion for judgment on the pleadings is the same as that applied to a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Dale v. Exec. Office of the President, 164 F. Supp. 2d 22, 24 (D.D.C. 2001).

All that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require of a complaint is that it contain "'a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to 'give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)); accord Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200 (2007) (per curiam). Although "detailed factual allegations" are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, to provide the "grounds" of "entitle[ment] to relief," a plaintiff must furnish "more than labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Bell Atl. Corp., 127 S.Ct. at 1964-65; see also Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). Instead, the complaint's "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)." Bell Atl. Corp., 127 S.Ct. at 1965 (citations omitted). Hence, although "a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is impossible, and 'that a recovery is very remote and unlikely,'" id. (quoting Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)), the "threshold requirement" of Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) is "that the 'plain statement' possess enough heft to 'sho[w] that the pleader is entitled to relief,'" id. at 1966 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2)).

DISCUSSION

I. Plaintiff's Claims Under § 502(a)(1)(B)

Section 502(a)(1)(B) of ERISA provides that "a participant or beneficiary" may bring a civil action "to recover benefits due to him under the terms of his plan, to enforce his rights under the terms of the plan, or to clarify his rights to future benefits under the terms of the plan." 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B). Although plaintiff never cites § 502(a)(1)(B) in her amended complaint, her opposition states that she "is more than willing to tell Defendants and the Court that she will ...


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