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Pettaway v. Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America

April 18, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton United States District Judge


Sonya Pettaway, the plaintiff in this civil lawsuit, seeks reinstatement of her long-term disability benefits, lost benefits for the period during which her benefits were terminated, prejudgment interest, and attorneys' fees from the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (the "TIAA"), the National Academy of Sciences Group Total Disability Insurance Plan (the "NAS Plan"), and The Standard Benefit Administrators (the "SBA"), for alleged unlawful termination of her disability benefits under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001-1461 (2000) (the "ERISA"). Complaint (the "Compl.") ¶¶ 1, 17-18. Currently before the Court are two separate motions to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Produce 12(b)(6): one by the TIAA and the SBA, and another by the NAS Plan. Defendant National Academy of Sciences Group Total Disability Insurance Plan's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint at 1; Teacher's Insurance and Annuity Association of America's and Standard Benefit Administrators' Motion to Dismiss and Statement of Points and Authorities (the "Defs. TIAA/SBA Mot.") at 1. After carefully reviewing the plaintiff's complaint, the parties' motions, and all memoranda and exhibits relating thereto,*fn1 the Court concludes that it must deny the defendants' motion to dismiss for the reasons that follow.

I. Background

The following facts are alleged in the plaintiff's complaint. The plaintiff, who was employed by the National Academy of Sciences, was enrolled in its Disability Insurance Benefits plan. Compl. ¶ 6. The benefit plan was governed by the ERISA and underwritten by the TIAA. Id. ¶ 7. The plaintiff became disabled "[o]n or about January 10, 2000 . . . due to a motor vehicle accident" and began receiving long-term disability payments in August of 2000. Id. ¶¶ 10-11.

The SBA, which administers the plaintiff's TIAA benefit plan, later terminated the plaintiff's benefits on August 31, 2004, a decision that the plaintiff appealed internally on October 18, 2004. Id. ¶ 12. On March 15, 2005, the SBA concluded that the plaintiff had filed her appeal "without following the proper procedures set forth in the Department of Labor claims regulations, in particular failing to refer to the file for review by an appropriate physician." Id. ¶ 13. As a result, the plaintiff's appeal was denied on September 26, 2005. Id. ¶ 14.

The plaintiff filed her complaint in this Court on September 26, 2007. In her complaint, the plaintiff alleges that she "has been, and remains, totally disabled in accordance with the terms of the [ERISA governed benefits] policy." Id. ¶ 16. She seeks, inter alia, relief from the defendants in the form of restoration of her benefits. Id. ¶ 17-18.

The defendants assert that the plaintiff's complaint should be dismissed because the plaintiff failed to file her complaint within the applicable statue of limitations period. Defs. TIAA/SBA's Mot. at 3; Def. NAS Plan's Mem. at 1. They argue that dismissal is compelled because "[i]n the District of Columbia, the statute of limitations for . . . an ERISA claim for benefits[] is three years" and the clock for the limitations period began to run on the date the plaintiff was told her benefits would be terminated--August 31, 2004. Defs. TIAA/SBA's Mot. at 3; Def. NAS Plan's Mem. at 2. Therefore, they conclude that because the plaintiff waited to file her complaint until September 26, 2007, more than three years after the statute of limitations began to run, her claim is time-barred and must be dismissed. Defs. TIAA/SBA's Mot. at 3; Def NAS Plan's Mem. at 3.

The plaintiff contests when the limitations period commenced, asserting that "the statute of limitations could not commence before [she] exhausted [the d]efendants' internal remedies, i.e., the appeals procedure." Pl.'s Opp'n at 6. She notes that "courts across the country, including the District of Columbia Circuit, have applied" a requirement mandating that a plaintiff exhaust internal administrative remedies before bringing suit in a federal court. Id. at 3. Thus, the plaintiff maintains that the statute of limitations began on March 15, 2005, when "the plan's internal remedies [were] exhausted," making the filing of the complaint on September 26, 2007 timely. Id. at 6.

II. Standard of Review

The defendants seek dismissal of the plaintiff's claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). On a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court "must treat the complainant's factual allegations as true and must grant the plaintiff the benefit of the all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged." Trudeau v. FTC, 456 F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (internal quotation and citation omitted). Factual challenges are not permitted under Rule 12(b)(6), and the Court may only consider facts alleged in the complaint, any documents attached as exhibits thereto (or incorporated therein), and matters subject to judicial notice in weighing the merits of the motion. EEOC v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial Sch., 117 F.3d 621, 624-25 (D.C. Cir. 1997). The Court's focus is therefore restricted to the facts as alleged by the plaintiff, which must be sufficiently detailed "to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, ___ U.S. ____, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1965 (2007).

III. Legal Analysis

The ERISA provides no statute of limitations for initiating a challenge to the denial of benefits under § 502 of the Act. See 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B) (allowing for suit to recover benefits, but listing no accompanying statute of limitations).*fn2 Where, as here, there is no statute of limitations for the filing of a claim under a federal statute, "a court must, as a general rule, borrow the most closely analogous statute of limitations from the state in which the court sits."

Connors v. Hallmark & Son Coal Co., 935 F.2d 336, 341 (D.C. Cir. 1991). In pension benefit situations such as this one, courts in the this Circuit analogize an alleged denial of benefits to a breach of contract claim, which has a statute of limitations of three years under District of Columbia law. See id. ("[T]he applicable statute is § 12-301(7) of the District of Columbia Code, establishing a three-year limitations period for breach of contract actions."); Walker v. Pharm. Research & Mfrs. of Am., 439 F. Supp. 2d 103, 107 (D.D.C. 2006) (explaining that because the "ERISA does not provide a statute of limitations for § 502 claims," courts must "apply the most analogous state law," which is the District of Columbia three-year statute of limitations for breach of contract actions) (citing D.C. Code § 12-301(7)-(8)). The parties also agree that utilization of this three-year period is appropriate in this case, Def. NAS Plan's Mot. at 2; Defs. TIAA/SBA's Mot. at 3; Pl.'s Opp'n at 2.

Where the parties' part ways is on the question of when the claim accrued. The defendants assert that an ERISA claim arises when a clear repudiation of benefits is communicated to the plaintiff. Def. NAS Plan's Mot. at 3; Def. TIAA/SBA's Mot. at 3. Although the District of Columbia Circuit has not explicitly addressed this issue in the context of an ERISA claim, the Supreme Court has noted that an ERISA claim can be "guided by principles of trust law," Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 111 (1989), because "ERISA abounds with the language and terminology of trust law," id. at 110. "[T]o start the statute of limitations [in a trust action] there must be a clear and continuing repudiation of the right to . . . benefits." Kosty v. Lewis, 319 F.2d 744, 750 (D.C. Cir. 1963) (examining the applicable statute of limitations guidelines for trust actions, which, according to Firestone, can be applied to an ERISA claim). This "clear repudiation" standard of trust law is properly applied to the ERISA in determining when a claim arises and the statute of limitations begins to run. See Cobell v. Norton, 260 F. Supp. 2d 98, 106 (D.D.C. 2003) ("The [District of Columbia] Circuit's holding in Kotsy is consistent with the findings of other circuits that have construed the relevant statute of limitations in cases filed under ERISA, which federal courts have been directed to construe in light of the common law principles governing trusts."); see also Daill v. Sheet Metal Workers' Local 73 Pension Fund, 100 F.3d 62, 67 (7th Cir. 1996) (concluding that an ERISA cause of action began to run when the ...

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