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James v. International Painters and Allied Trades Industry Pension Plan

April 30, 2010

IAN PHILLIP JAMES, PLAINTIFF,
v.
INTERNATIONAL PAINTERS AND ALLIED TRADES INDUSTRY PENSION PLAN, AND GARY J. MEYERS, ADMINISTRATOR INTERNATIONAL PAINTERS AND ALLIED TRADES INDUSTRY PENSION PLAN, DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Ian Phillip James, the plaintiff in this civil case, is seeking "compensatory damages for past benefits that have been improperly denied to him," Third Amended Complaint ("Compl.") ¶ 23, and a "declaratory judgment as to the amount of retirement benefits, both past and future, to which he is entitled to under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001-1461 (2000) (the "ERISA"), id. ¶ 25. Additionally, the plaintiff alleges that defendants International Painters and Allied Trades Industry Pension Plan and its administrator, Gary J. Meyers, violated 29 U.S.C. § 1140 by retaliating against one of the plaintiff's prospective witnesses, id. ¶ 28-29, and "fail[ing] to supply . . . requested records, explanation and information," id. ¶ 42, and that the defendants breach the contract that governs the retirement benefits that are disputed in this case, id. ¶ 44. Currently before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. After carefully considering the Complaint, the parties' summary judgment motions, and all memoranda of law and exhibits submitted with these filings,*fn1 the Court concludes for the reasons below that it must (1) deny the plaintiff's and defendants' motion for summary judgment in part and without prejudice, and remand the case to the defendants for further consideration of the plaintiff's application for benefits, (2) deny the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment in part and with prejudice; and (3) grant the defendants' motion for summary judgment in part.*fn2

I. BACKGROUND

The plaintiff was a member of the Glaziers Local 963 union (the "Union") beginning from at least August 1, 1962. See Defs.' Mem. at 4 (acknowledging that the plaintiff's "initial union initiation date [was] August 1, 1962"); Pl.'s Opp'n at 4-5 (claiming that he was "a member of the [U]nion covered by the collective bargaining agreement" since 1959). While he was a member of the Union, the plaintiff was employed by employers who contributed to the Glaziers Local 963 Pension Plan (the "Local 963 Plan"). Defs.' Stmt. of Facts ¶ 1. From its inception, the Local 963 Plan was a trust and pension plan as defined under 29 U.S.C. 186(c)(5). Id. ¶ 2.

The Local 963 Plan eventually merged into the International Painters and Allied Trades Industry Pension Plan on January 1, 1998. Id. ¶ 4. The Merged Plan preserved all vested benefits under the Local 963 Plan. Id. ¶ 6.

To claim a vested interest in a deferred pension under the Local 963 Plan, a beneficiary must have accrued ten years of service credit. Defs.' Mem., Ex. 13 (Glaziers Local 963 Pension Fund Plan Description and Text of Plan, Effective April 1, 1971 (the "1971 Plan")) § 3.1; Defs.' Mem., Ex. 40 (Glaziers Local 963 Pension Plan Summary Plan Description and Text of Plan, As Amended Effective January 1, 1993 (the "1993 Plan") § 3.1. If, prior to vesting, a person worked fewer than 160 hours for two consecutive calendar years, all prior service credit accrued is "lost." Defs.' Mem., Ex. 13 (1971 Plan) § 2.3; see id., Ex. 40 (1993 Plan) § 4.3. Service credit is divided into either past service credit, which is credit awarded for any employment with a contributing employer prior to October 1, 1965, and future service credit, which is credit awarded for any employment with a contributing employer after October 1, 1965. Id., Ex. 13 (1971 Plan) §§ 2.1-2.2; id., Ex. 40 (1993 Plan) § 4.1.

The plaintiff, believing that he had accumulated "14.54 years of covered employment," thereby making him "a vested member of the Glaziers Local 963 union," Compl. ¶ 5. submitted an application for retirement benefits to the defendants on February of 2005, id. ¶ 7. The defendants denied the plaintiff's application on March 29, 2005, id. ¶ 8; Defs.' Answer ¶ 8, claiming that "the records received from the Local 963 Plan did not show [that the plaintiff was] a vested participant," Defs.' Reply to Pl.'s Stmt. of Facts ¶ 1. The plaintiff then attempted to bolster his application by providing the defendants with "authorization to obtain [his] Social Security Earnings Record on April 25, 2005." See Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 3 (May 5, 2005 Letter from Gary J. Meyers to Ian P. James).The defendants, however, contended that far from evidencing the "claimed 14.54 years of service[,] . . . [his] claims conflict with information from [the successor to the Local Union 963 Plan] and his union membership card." Defs.' Reply to Pl.'s Stmt. of Facts ¶ 3. Thus, the defendants again denied the plaintiff's appeal on August 23, 2005. Defs.' Mem., Ex. 25 (August 23, 2005 Letter from Gary J. Meyers to Ian P. James) at 1.

After this second denial, the defendants "discover[ed] a Local 963 Plan record from 1973, and according to this record, [the plaintiff] had accumulated 3.3 years of past service credit before October 1, 1965[,] and 6.2 years of future service credit . . . for work with contributing employers." Defs.' Mem. at 4. The plaintiff received a letter on June 27, 2007, informing him of this information and the Board's conclusion that he was entitled to a pension of $409.68 in monthly benefits. Compl. ¶ 13. Upon the plaintiff's request, the defendants provided a "breakdown" of their calculations for his pension entitlement on August 16, 2007. Defs.' Mem., Ex. 38 (August 16, 2007 Letter from Gary Meyers to Neil Intrater) at 1. Notably, the defendants' calculations of the plaintiff's benefits was manifestly erroneous; specifically, the defendants determined that the plaintiff was entitled to $54.00 per month based on 3.3 years of past service credit at the rate of $1.50 per year, and $355.68 per month based on 6.2 years of future service credit at the rate of $4.94 per year. Id.

The plaintiff remained steadfast in his belief that he had "accrued several years of service credits [that] the Defendants [were] not honoring," id. ¶ 14, and that he was "entitle[d] to more than the $409.68 per month awarded by the [d]efendants," id. ¶ 15. Specifically, the plaintiff believed that he was entitled to credit for work performed between some unspecified date in 1959 and August 1, 1962 while "work[ing] for an employer covered by the [U]nion contract," and that he should have received additional credits for service that he purportedly performed in 1969, 1979, and 1980. Defs.' Mem., Ex. 4 (March 3, 2008 Letter from Gary Meyers to Neil Intrater (the "March 3, 2008 Letter") at 2. Thus, on August 20, 2007, the plaintiff appealed the defendants' June 27, 2007 determination. Id., Ex. 39 (August 20, 2007 Letter from Neil Intrater to Defendants) at 1. The defendants acknowledged receipt of the plaintiff's appeal and indicated that a decision would be issued after a meeting of the Merged Plan's trustees in February or March of 2008. Id.

On November 20, 2007, while his appeal was pending, the plaintiff filed the instant action. Pl.'s Mem. at 4. On March 3, 2008, the defendants denied the plaintiff's appeal. Defs.' Mem., Ex. 4 (March 3, 2008 Letter) at 1. The defendants reiterated that a 1973 Local 963 Plan service record listed the plaintiff with having only 9.5 years of service, id., and that he did "not produce[] any reliable evidence of additional service beyond the 1973 [service record]," id. at 2. With regards to his claim of service between 1959 and 1962, the defendants concluded that while the plaintiff's Social Security report "show[ed] work before 1962 with Local 963 employers, it [did] not show that this work was under a Local 963 Collective Bargaining Agreement," and that it was "unlikely that the [plaintiff] worked continuously in the Local 963 bargaining unit in Maryland from 1959 to 1962 without union membership." Id. at 3. The defendants further noted that for the disputed credits in 1979 and 1980, "[t]here is no record of contributory work in this period beyond union membership from December 5, 1979 to April 2, 1980." Id. In regards to the disputed credit for 1969, the defendants "estimate[d the] credit [the plaintiff was entitled to] for 1966 to 1969 by [computing] the ratio of earnings for years 1967, 1968, and 1969 from contributing employers to the high earnings from contributing employers on the [plaintiff's Social Security] report in 1966." Id. The defendants claimed that this calculation, when considered along with the 1973 printout, confirmed that the plaintiff was only entitled to 6.3 future service credits for the time period between 1966 and 1973. Id. As for the claimed service credits in 1965, the defendants explained that "Section 4.1(a) of the [1993 Plan] gives past service credit for any plan year that began before [October 1, 1965]," where the employee "work[ed] under a Local 963 Collective Bargaining Agreement." Id. at 2. Because the term "plan year" was not defined in the 1993 Plan, the defendants inferred from the 1973 printout record that the term was to be defined as a "calendar year." Id. The defendants, however, did not provide a detailed breakdown of how it concluded that the plaintiff was entitled to 3.3 years of past service credit, except to say that any credits earned in "early 1965," were "drop[ped]" from the calculation, and the plaintiff instead received "part[-]year credit" in 1965 for work performed "from October 1, 1965 to December 31, 1965." Id.

While the plaintiff continued to dispute the defendants' attribution to him of only 9.5 years of service, he ultimately decided that "due to the lack of documentation from the [d]efendants," as well as his "concern[s] about retaliation[,]" he would "discontinue the litigation." Compl. ¶ 16. Therefore, "[o]n June 7, 2008, the [p]laintiff executed . . . acceptance forms for the $409.68 pension." Id. ¶ 17. However, "by a letter dated June 19, 2008, [the defendants] rejected the acceptance of benefits from [the plaintiff] and [allegedly] retaliated against [him] by ambiguously either retracting completely or reducing the amount of benefits offered to him from $409.68 to $46.93 per month." Pl.'s Mot. at 5. According to the letter, the defendants did not alter the prior amount of service time as to either past or future service credits previously awarded to the plaintiff, but they did make two substantive modifications: first, the defendants revised the amount that the plaintiff should receive for past service credit from $1.50 to $4.94, and second, they addressed the mathematical error contained in the August 16, 2007 letter and adjusted the total benefit based on a correct computation of the plaintiff's service credit totals multiplied by the monthly award rates. Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 8 (June 19, 2008 Letter from Gary

J. Meyers to Ian P. James) at 2.

Throughout this process, the plaintiff asserts that he "has repeatedly requested a clear explanation of the [d]efendants' calculations, copies of all relevant pension plans[,] and a copy of the [p]laintiff's complete records," Compl. ¶ 9, but he asserts that he "has never received a clear explanation" of these calculations or relevant Plan documents, id. ¶ 10. Despite the plaintiff's assertions, the defendants maintain that "[a]ll available responsive documents were provided to [the p]laintiff," Meyers Decl. ¶ 8, and that after "considerable time and effort" the defendants were unable to locate certain information because of "problems arising from old and missing records," id. ¶ 7. The defendants assert that since the plaintiff's Local 963 Plan was a separate entity until 1998, it was not the "responsibility of the [defendants], nor was it possible [for them], to maintain Local 963 Plan records." Id. ¶ 4.

To further complicate this matter, the plaintiff revealed during discovery that he intended to call Harold Schwartz as a witness in his case. Compl. ¶ 19. The plaintiff claimed that "[Mr.] Schwartz, who worked roughly the same years as the [p]laintiff, had been awarded a monthly pension of $602.00 in March of 2002." Id. ¶ 20. However, the plaintiff states that "[i]n retaliation against [Mr.] Schwartz for his potential testimony in this case[,] the [d]efendants terminated his benefits by letter dated June 19, 2008." Id. ¶ 21. In their defense, the defendants assert that "[t]he action taken with respect to Mr. Schwartz was not in retaliation for being named as a witness," but rather because a review of the evidence "showed that [he] was erroneously awarded benefits based on the work history [of] his deceased son, Harold Schwartz, Jr." Defs.' Reply to Pl.'s Stmt. of Facts ¶ 8. They also note that "Mr. Schwartz has filed an appeal of the termination of his benefits and the [defendants are] obtaining his employment and other records to consider his appeal." Id. ¶ 10.

In reaction to the defendants' actions, the plaintiff amended his complaint on July 21, 2008, to add an additional request for "relief and damages . . . pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132," Compl. ¶ 33, for "retaliat[ing] against the [p]laintiff for filing the . . . lawsuit," id. ¶ 28, and also for "retaliating against . . . [Mr.] Schwartz," id. ¶ 29. In addition, the plaintiff reiterated his claims for (1) monetary compensation for past benefits that have been denied, id. ¶ 23; (2) a "declaratory judgment as to the amount of retirement benefits . . . to which he is entitled," id. ¶ 25; (3) "injunctive relief directing . . . [the plan administrator,] Gary J. Meyers, . . . to pay the [p]laintiff the benefits to which [he] is entitled," id. ¶ 36; (4) statutory damages pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 1132(c)(1)(B) for "fail[ing] to provide the [p]laintiff[] [with his] union employment records or relevant documentation," id. ...


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