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Walker v. Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America

August 7, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ricardo M. Urbina United States District Judge

Document Nos.: 59, 60




The remaining defendants in this lengthy litigious saga set before this court a motion to dismiss and a motion for summary judgment. Individuals who are current or former members of the board of directors of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America*fn1 ("PhRMA") and members of the PhRMA retirement committee (collectively the "individual defendants") filed the motion to dismiss. New York Life Insurance Company ("NYLIC") and New York Life Investment Management, Inc. ("NYLIM") (collectively the "New York Life defendants") filed the motion for summary judgment. Both groups of defendants raise numerous arguments against the plaintiff's claims, which stem from alleged violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001 et seq. Because the plaintiff failed to properly serve 10 of the individual defendants, the court allows 30 days for the plaintiff, proceeding pro se, to properly effect service. Furthermore, because claims arising before November 15, 1998 are definitively time barred, and because the plaintiff may not re-hash old legal arguments to bring back claims that this court previously dismissed, the court dismisses many of the plaintiff's ERISA claims. But, the court does not dismiss the plaintiff's claims that allege that the remaining defendants failed to respond to requests for, or disclose, ERISA plan documents in more recent years.


A. Factual Background

The plaintiff, an attorney, was a full-time employee of PhRMA in various professional capacities from 1977 to 1988. Mem. Op. (July 17, 2006) at 2. Following the birth of her second child in 1988, the plaintiff requested but was denied a part-time work arrangement because PhRMA's then-president "did not believe in part-time professionals." Id. Instead, PhRMA's General Counsel, Bruce Brennan, suggested that the plaintiff serve as an independent contractor. Id. The plaintiff accepted this arrangement and signed an independent contractor agreement on March 24, 1988.*fn2 Id. At the expiration of that agreement, the plaintiff and PhRMA signed identically worded agreements every year until 2001. Id. at 3. The final agreement, signed on September 12, 2001, notified the plaintiff that PhRMA did not intend to continue their relationship following the expiration of the agreement on June 30, 2002. Id.

The independent contractor agreements signed by the plaintiff each year stated that the plaintiff "shall be engaged as an independent contractor, not as an employee, and shall not be entitled to participate in any of [PhRMA's] employee benefit plans." Id. at 2-3. The plaintiff alleges that she signed the independent contractor agreements based on the belief that part-time employees, like independent contractors, were ineligible for employee benefits. Id. at 2. In other words, the plaintiff alleges that she "had no reason" to challenge her classification as an independent contractor rather than as a part-time employee because she believed the "terms and conditions of her employment" were the same as those of part-time employees. Pls.' Mot. to Alter or Amend J. at 5.

Sometime between 1991 and 1994, PhRMA reinterpreted its retirement plan to make part-time employees eligible for certain retirement benefits. Id. at 5. The plaintiff alleges that the defendants violated ERISA because they failed to notify independent contractors of the changes affecting part-time employees. Id. at 5, 13, 16.

B. Procedural Background

The plaintiff filed her original complaint on November 11, 2004, and she amended her complaint in August 2005. Although difficult to parse, the complaint appears to assert the following claims arising under ERISA*fn3 : (1) that the plaintiff is entitled to benefits under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B) ("ERISA § 502"); (2) that the defendants interfered with her rights to retirement benefits by improperly classifying her as an independent contractor, in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 1140 ("ERISA § 510"); and (3) that the defendants breached their fiduciary duties by either failing to notify the plaintiff that part-time employees were eligible to receive benefits, or by classifying her as an independent contractor, rather than as a part-time employee, in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 1104 ("ERISA § 404").

The PhRMA defendants*fn4 moved for summary judgment in October 2005 on the grounds that the statute of limitations bars the plaintiff's ERISA claims and that ERISA preempts the platintiff's common law claims. See generally PhRMA's Mot. In granting the PhRMA defendants' motion on July 17, 2006, the court determined that (1) the three-year statute of limitations bars the plaintiff's § 502 claim because it began to run when the parties executed an independent contractor agreement in 1988; (2) applying either a one-year or a three-year statute of limitation would bar the plaintiff's § 510 claim because the claim accrued in 1988, the year she learned that she was no longer eligible to participate in the PhRMA retirement plans; (3) the statute of limitations bars the plaintiff's § 404 claim because the plaintiff had knowledge of the alleged breach or violation more than three years before she filed suit; and (4) ERISA preempts the plaintiff's D.C. common law claims. See generally Mem. Op. (July 16, 2006).

The plaintiff then filed a motion to alter or amend judgment on July 31, 2006. The court denied the plaintiff's motion, reaffirming the dismissal of each of the plaintiff's claims. The court explained that the plaintiff's ยง 502 claim accrued the date of the clear repudiation of benefits, not, as the plaintiff argued in her motion, the date the defendants denied the plaintiff's claim for benefits. Mem. Op. (Nov. 15, 2006) at 6. The court then rejected the plaintiff's argument that her waiver of benefits could not have been clear without the knowledge that part-time employees were entitled to benefits. Id. at 7. In rejecting this argument, the court reasoned that the repudiation of benefits is the communication at issue, not communications regarding other employees' benefits. Id. The court was similarly unmoved by the plaintiff's contention that the statute of limitations should be tolled because of the PhRMA defendants' alleged fraudulent concealment of part-time employees' eligibility for benefits. Id. at 8. First, the plaintiff was not a part-time employee. Id. Second, the PhRMA defendants' employee handbook, which the plaintiff was allegedly responsible for drafting, states that the 401(k) Deferred Savings Plan is offered to "all employees who are regularly scheduled to work at least 20 hours per week." Id. Third, in 1991, the plaintiff was aware of the "smoking gun" letter, which indicated to her that part-time workers were eligible for benefits. Id. at 11. Therefore, even if this knowledge is relevant to the plaintiff's claims, she would ...

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