*fn16,The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton United States District Judge,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." />

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Ian Phillip James v. International Painters and Allied Trades Industry Pension Plan

February 24, 2012 *fn16

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

Plaintiff Ian Phillip James brings this action under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001-1461 (2006) (the "ERISA"), alleging that the defendants wrongfully denied him pension benefits, did not provide an adequate explanation for their decision to deny him these benefits, and failed to produce certain pension plan documents. See Third Amended Compl. ("3d Am. Compl.") ¶¶ 22-46. Currently before the Court are the parties' renewed cross-motions for summary judgment. Upon careful consideration of the parties' motions and the entire record in this case,*fn1 the Court concludes for the following reasons that the defendants' motion must be granted in part and denied in part, and that the plaintiff's motion must be denied.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Facts

The following facts are not in dispute and are taken in part from a memorandum opinion previously issued in this case. See James v. Int'l Painters & Allied Trades Indus. Pension Plan, 710 F. Supp. 2d 16, 18-21 (D.D.C. 2010). The plaintiff was a member of the Glaziers Local Union 963 (the "Union") starting from at least August 1, 1962. Id. at 18. During his membership with the Union, the plaintiff worked for various employers who contributed to the Glaziers Local 963 Pension Plan (the "Local 963 Plan" or "Plan"). Id. The Local 963 Plan was, from its inception, a trust fund administered by a joint labor-management board of trustees as defined under 29 U.S.C. § 186(c)(5). Id. Effective January 1, 1998, the Local 963 Plan merged with the International Painters and Allied Trades Industry Pension Plan (the "Merged Plan"). Id. The Merged Plan preserved all benefits that had vested under the Local 963 Plan. Id.

This case concerns two versions of the Local 963 Plan: one adopted in 1971 and another in 1993. Both versions of the Local 963 Plan contain the following pertinent components. To claim a vested interest in a pension, an employee must have accrued ten years of service credit.

1971 Plan § 3.1; 1993 Plan § 3.1.*fn2 Employees who incurred "breaks in service" prior to vesting lost all accrued service credit. See 1971 Plan § 2.3 ("An employee will incur a loss of credited service when he fails to work at least 160 hours in any one of two (2) consecutive calendar years."); 1993 Plan § 4.3 ("If an Employee has five consecutive Breaks in Service before he has earned Vested status, and if the number of consecutive Breaks in Service equals or exceeds his number of years of Vesting, he has a Permanent Break in Service. A Permanent Break in Service has the effect of canceling the Employee's participation, his previously credited Vesting Service, and his previous Benefit Service."). Service credits are divided into either past service credit, which is credit awarded for employment with a contributing employer prior to October 1, 1965, or future service credit, which is credit awarded for employment with a contributing employer after October 1, 1965. 1971 Plan §§ 2.1-2.2; 1993 Plan § 4.1.

The plaintiff, believing that he had accumulated "14.54 years of covered employment," which would qualify him as "a vested member of the Glaziers Local 963 union," submitted an application for retirement benefits to the defendants in February 2005. 3d Am. Compl. ¶¶ 5, 7. The defendants denied the plaintiff's application on March 29, 2005, claiming that the records provided to the Merged Plan by the Local 963 Plan at the time of the merger did not list the plaintiff as a vested participant. James, 710 F. Supp. 2d at 19. The plaintiff then administratively appealed the defendants' denial of benefits. Id. On August 23, 2005, the defendants denied the plaintiff's administrative appeal for the same reasons stated in their initial decision, but provided for further review of the plaintiff's application upon receipt of a Social Security Administration ("SSA") earnings report for the plaintiff. Defs.' Mot., Ex. 25 (August 23, 2005 Letter from Gary J. Meyers to Ian P. James) at 1. The defendants thereafter received the plaintiff's SSA earnings report, but were unable to determine from that record whether the plaintiff had any additional work in covered employment under the Local 963 Plan that qualified him as a vested Plan participant. Id., Ex. 32 (March 29, 2007 Letter from Gary Myers to Neil Intrater) at 1.

However, during their review of the plaintiff's claims, the defendants discovered a Local 963 Plan record from 1973 which indicated that the plaintiff had "accumulated 3.3 years of past service credit before October 1, 1965, and 6.2 years of future service credit," for a total of 9.5 service credits. Defs.' Renew. Mem. at 3; see Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 13 (Annual Pension List Fund for Year Ending 12/31/1973 ("1973 Pension Record")). Based on this newly discovered record, the defendants issued a revised determination on June 27, 2007, awarding the plaintiff $409.68 in monthly pension benefits. 3d Am. Compl. ¶ 13. At the plaintiff's request, the defendants subsequently issued the following "breakdown" of their calculation of the $409.68 award:

Years of Service Benefit Level Benefit 3.3 years of Past Service Credit $1.50 $54.00 6.2 years of Future Service Credit $4.94 $355.68 Total Monthly Benefit $409.68

Defs.' Mot., Ex. 38 (August 16, 2007 Letter from Gary Meyers to Neil Intrater) at 1.*fn3

After receiving the defendants' clarification letter, the plaintiff administratively appealed the defendants' June 27, 2007 $409.68 monthly pension award. Defs.' Mot., Ex. 39 (August 20, 2007 Letter from Neil Intrater to the International Painters and Allied Traders ("IPAT") Board of Trustees) at 1. Specifically, the plaintiff appealed the "amount of the award," claiming that it was improperly "calculated based upon 9.5 credits," rather than the "14.54 credits" to which he claimed entitlement. Id. In support of his claim that he was entitled to 14.54 service credits, the plaintiff asserted that the defendants failed to credit him for service in covered employment from 1959 to 1972 and 1979 to 1980. Defs.' Mot., Ex. 4 (March 3, 2008 Letter from Gary Meyers to Neil Intrater) at 2.

The defendants denied the plaintiff's administrative appeal by letter dated March 3, 2008. Id. at 2-4. In rejecting the plaintiff's appeal, the defendants again highlighted the 1973 Pension Record that listed the plaintiff as having only 9.5 service credits, noting that the plaintiff failed to produce "any reliable evidence of additional service beyond" what was stated in this record. Id. at 2. Regarding the plaintiff's claimed service between 1959 and 1962, the defendants found that while the plaintiff's SSA earnings 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. They deemed the plaintiffs' "belated and self-serving claim . . . about the nature of his work . . . insufficient to overcome the contemporaneous records." Id. With respect to 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 Pension Record that the term designated a "calendar year." Id. The defendants did not provide a detailed breakdown of how it concluded that the plaintiff was entitled to 3.3 years of past service credit, but they did state that 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. Regarding service credit for 1966 to 1969, the defendants estimated the credit to which the plaintiff was entitled "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. at 3. The defendants claimed that this calculation, when considered along with the 1973 Pension Record, confirmed that the plaintiff was only entitled to 6.2 future service credits for the time period between 1966 and 1973. Id. As for the disputed service credits in 1979 and 1980, the defendants found "no record of contributory work in this period beyond union membership from December 5, 1979 to April 2, 1980." 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 "concern[s] about retaliation," he would "discontinue the litigation." 3d Am. Compl. ¶ 16. Accordingly, on June 7, 2008, the plaintiff "executed . . . acceptance forms for the $409.68 pension." Id. ¶ 17. However, by a letter dated June 19, 2008, the defendants informed the plaintiff that they were rejecting his acceptance forms and retracting the $409.68 monthly pension award, based on their determination that he was not entitled to that award. Pl.'s Mot., Ex. 8 (June 19, 2008 Letter from Gary Meyers to Ian James) at 1. The letter explained that the defendants did not alter the past or future service credits previously awarded to the plaintiff, but that they did make two 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 a mathematical error contained in their August 16, 2007 clarification letter by adjusting the total benefit based on a correct computation of the plaintiff's service credit totals multiplied by the monthly award rates. Id. at 1-2.*fn4

B. Procedural Background

The plaintiff instituted this action on November 20, 2007, and subsequently amended his original complaint twice. His third amended complaint, filed July 21, 2008, contains the following seven counts: Count 1 "seeks compensatory damages for the past benefits that have been improperly denied" to the plaintiff, 3d Am. Compl. ¶23; Count 2 "seeks a declaratory judgment as to the amount of benefits, both past and future, to which [the plaintiff] is entitled," and alternatively requests a "declaratory judgment that [the plaintiff] is entitled to the $409.68 in monthly benefits previously awarded by the [d]efendants," id. ¶¶ 25-26; Count 3 asserts that the defendants unlawfully retaliated against the plaintiff and one of the plaintiff's co-workers in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 1140, id. ¶¶ 27-34; Count 4 "seeks injunctive relief directing [the defendants] to pay the [p]laintiff the benefits to which [he] is entitled," and to "discontinue their retaliatory actions," id. ¶¶ 36-37; Count 5 asserts that the defendants unlawfully failed to provide the plaintiff with "union employment records or relevant documentation and failed to provide [the p]laintiff with an understandable explanation for the denial of benefits" in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 1132(c)(1)(B) and 29 U.S.C. § 1133, id. ¶ 39; Count 6 asserts a claim for "common law breach of contract" against the defendants, id. ¶ 44; and Count 7 requests attorneys' fees and costs, id. ¶ 46.

By memorandum opinion dated April 30, 2010, this Court granted summary judgment to the defendants as to the plaintiff's claims for retaliation, breach of contract, and access to certain employment and union records. James, 710 F. Supp. 2d at 29-32. As to the plaintiff's claims for denial of benefits and access to Plan documents, the Court denied the parties' motions for summary judgment without prejudice, and remanded this case to the defendants for a determination of whether the plaintiff's benefit application fell under the 1971 or 1993 version of the Local 963 Plan.*fn5 See id. at 26-29. In the event the defendants concluded that the 1971 Plan applied, the Court ordered them to make a "full and fair assessment of [the plaintiff's] claims" using the standards set forth in the 1971 Plan for determining whether the plaintiff has a vested pension under the Local 963 Plan, and provide a "clear communication to the claimant of the specific reasons for benefit denials, if any, under the terms of that version of the plan." Id. at 27 (quoting Black & Decker Disability Plan v. Nord, 538 U.S. 822, 825 (2003)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Following the Court's remand, the defendants determined that the 1971 Plan controlled, but that, even under this version of the plan, there was no basis for altering their previous findings. Defs.' Renew. Mem., Ex. 45 (July 9, 2010 Letter from Gary J. Meyers to Neil Intrater Re: Ian James Benefit Appeal) at 2. The defendants also endeavored to offer a "more coherent explanation" for their determination that the plaintiff was entitled to only 3.3 years of past service credit. Id. They reiterated their view that the 1973 Pension Record, which accorded the plaintiff 3.3 years of past service credit and 6.2 years of future service credit, was the "best available remaining record of service," and added that this record's indication that the plaintiff fell short of the 10 years of service required for vesting explained why the plaintiff was not listed as a vested employee in the Union's Plan records at the time of the Union's merger with the IPAT. Id. As justification for their reliance on the 1973 Pension Record, the defendants noted that their general practice is "to rely on plan records, particularly if they are consistent with other records, as the best basis for uniform treatment of all employees." Id. at 3. The defendants further stated that the Local 969 Plan documents, as well as the plaintiff's union membership records showing a Union "initiation date" of August 1962, supported an award of 3.3 past service credits to the plaintiff for covered employment from August 1, 1962, to October 31, 1965. Id. While acknowledging that the plaintiff's SSA earnings report showed work prior to August 1962 with "glass industry employers," the defendants adhered to their view that this work was not "covered by the collective bargaining agreement" and thus did not count toward the plaintiff's credited service. Id. The defendants additionally noted that the plaintiff, after earning only 9.5 service credits (0.5 credits short of the number needed for vesting) for covered employment from 1962 to 1972, had an "acknowledged break in contributory work from 1973 to 1979." Id. Because the terms of the 1971 Plan provided that employees with less than 10 years of service credit lost all credit on a break of 2 calendar years with less than 160 hours of credit, the defendants concluded that the plaintiff's admitted break in service cancelled all of his service credit for 1962 to 1972. Id.

The parties thereafter renewed their cross-motions for summary judgment. By order dated September 19, 2011, the Court again denied the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment without prejudice and once again remanded this case back to the defendants. September 19, 2011 Order at 8, James v. Int'l Painters & Allied Trades Indus. Pension Plan, No. 07-2107 (D.D.C.) ("September 19, 2011 Order"). While agreeing "with the defendants' explanation that the 1971 Plan governs this case," id. at 2 n.1, the Court found the defendants' interpretation of the Plan unreasonable, id. at 7. Namely, the Court found fault with the defendants' determination that the plaintiff was entitled to 3.3 years of past service credits, as the 1971 Plan plainly does "not contemplate the use of partial years of credited service because it only speaks of awarding credits in one year increments." Id. at 6. The Court concluded that this interpretation of the 1971 Plan, even under a deferential standard of review, could not stand. Id. Because the "amount of the plaintiff's credited service will have ramifications for his remaining claims," the Court deemed it imprudent to further analyze the parties' arguments, and thus remanded this case to the defendants "to afford them another opportunity to calculate the plaintiff's past service credits in a manner that is reasonably supported by the language . . . of the 1971 Plan." Id. at 7-8.

In accordance with the Court's order, the defendants sent the plaintiff a letter that served as a "written calculation and explanation to the plaintiff . . . of the amount of past service credits [to which] he is entitled." Pl.'s Suppl. Mem., Ex. 53 (October 13, 2011 Letter from Kent Cprek to Neil Intrater) at 1. The defendants determined that the plaintiff is entitled to only 3 years of past service credits, id. at 4, based on the following factors. First, the 1971 Plan language provides that covered employees receive a "full year's credit for every year worked under a bargaining agreement of the union," which, in the defendants' view, is "most consistent with credit only for completed full years before October 1, 1965." Id. (emphasis added). Second, a 1972 amendment to the Plan provided past service credit for "service performed for each Plan Year that begins before October 1, 1965, any part of which the employee was covered by a collective bargaining agreement of the Union"; according to the defendants, this modified language "suggests a change in the meaning of the Plan." Id. (emphasis added). Third, the defendants stated that the "Plan records indicate both the change in the [P]lan and that the change was not retroactive, so that the amendment did not affect James nor restore his previously cancelled service to allow him to vest." Id. Finally, the defendants found that the "Merger Agreement with the Local 963 Plan expressly indicates" that the Merged Plan trustees must rely "on the accuracy of information provided by the Local 963 Plan trustees," and that, "[i]f [such] information was inaccurate, the [Merged] Plan [trustees were] allowed to reduce future benefit accruals for Local 963 Plan employees to account for the increased costs." Id. They added that the Merged Plan trustees are "not now in a position to find and correct past service records for those who left before the merger or estimate the associated costs." Id.

Following issuance of this letter, and at the parties' request, the Court reinstated the parties' previously denied cross-motions for summary judgment, and directed supplemental briefing based on the defendants' October 13, 2011 determination. In their supplemental memorandum, the defendants reiterate their contentions that (1) the 1971 Plan, rather than the 1993 Plan, applies in this case; (2) even if the 1993 Plan controls, the plaintiff is barred from pursuing any claims based on the 1993 summary plan description; and (3) under the 1971 Plan, the plaintiff is entitled to only 3 years of past service credit. Defs.' Suppl. Mem. at 2-3. The plaintiff responds, asserting that (1) the 1993 Plan is the controlling version of the Plan, Pl.'s Suppl. Reply at 1; (2) the terms of the 1993 Plan establish that he is entitled to a higher benefit multiplier than what is being offered by the defendants, id. at 3-4; and (3) his testimony and Social Security records demonstrate that he worked in covered employment between 1959 through 1965, and he therefore should be granted at least 6 years of past service credit, id. at 4-5. The plaintiff adds that "the [d]efendants have continued to ignore the uncontradicted evidence of over 14 years of credits" for covered employment from 1959 through 1972, 1979, and 1980, "and have continued to refuse to award [him] his rightful pension." Pl.'s Suppl. Mem. at 2.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

This Court previously found that a deferential standard of review applies to the plaintiff's wrongful denial of benefits claim under the ERISA, see James, 710 F. Supp. 2d 23-24, and it discerns no reason to depart from that determination, see September 19, 2011 Order at 6 ("Despite the attempts by the plaintiff to revive his argument that a de novo standard of review should be applied, . . . the Court remains unconvinced that this is the appropriate approach to employ."). This standard of review has been "variously described by the [Supreme] Court as 'arbitrary and capricious' or 'abuse of discretion,'" but, regardless of how it is phrased, the standard "is plainly deferential." Wagener v. SBC Pension Benefit Plan-Non-Bargained Program, 407 F.3d 395, 402 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (citing Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 111-115 (1989)). The District of Columbia Circuit "has defined the Firestone deferential standard as one of 'reasonableness.'" Id. (quoting Block v. Pitney Bowes, Inc., 952 F.2d 1450, 1454 (D.C. Cir. 1992)). Thus, in applying this standard, the "essential inquiry" for this Court is whether the defendants "reasonably construe[d] and appl[ied]" the Local 963 Plan in this case. Block, 952 F.2d at 1454. "If there is more than one action that is 'reasonable,' the Court must not overturn a decision found to be reasonable, even if an alternative decision also could have been considered reasonable." Id. at 1452 (internal quotations omitted).

As noted, this matter is currently before the Court on the parties' renewed cross-motions for summary judgment. Ordinarily, summary judgment is appropriate where "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). But in an ERISA case, "[w]hen the decision to grant or deny benefits is reviewed for abuse of discretion, a motion for summary judgment is merely the conduit to bring the legal question before the district court and the usual tests of summary judgment, such as whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists, do not apply." Bendixen v. Standard Ins. Co., 185 F.3d 939, 942 (9th Cir.1999), overruled on other grounds in Abatie v. Alta Health & Life Ins. Co., 458 F.3d 955, 966-69 (9th Cir. 2006) (en banc); accord Orndorf v. Paul Revere Life Ins. Co., 404 F.3d 510, 517 (1st Cir. 2005) ("[I]n an ERISA case where review is based only on the administrative record before the plan administrator and is an ultimate conclusion as to disability to be drawn from the facts, summary judgment is simply a vehicle for deciding the issue."). Thus, insofar as the parties' summary judgment motions concern the defendants' denial of benefits to the plaintiff, the motions are merely procedural vehicles for the Court's determination of whether the defendants' actions were reasonable.*fn6

III. ANALYSIS

The Court must first evaluate the defendants' determination that the 1971 version of the Local 963 Plan governs this case. Next, the Court will address the plaintiff's wrongful denial of benefits claim under the ERISA, looking at both the reasonableness of the defendants' interpretation of the applicable Local 963 Plan as well as the adequacy of the explanation for their denial of benefits to the plaintiff. Finally, the Court will consider the plaintiff's claim based on the defendants' alleged failure to produce Plan documents.

A. The Controlling Version of the Local 963 Plan

As explained above, the Court previously remanded this case to the defendants for a determination of which version of the Local 963 Plan applied to the plaintiff's claim for benefits, after which the defendants issued a letter on July 9, 2010, concluding that the 1971 Plan controlled. The Court then issued its September 19, 2011 Order, in which it stated in a footnote that it "agree[d] with the defendants' explanation that the 1971 Plan governs this case." September 19, 2011 Order at 2 n.1. The plaintiff resists this conclusion in his supplemental memorandum, reiterating his position that the 1993 Plan governs. Pl.'s Suppl. Reply at 1-3. Because the Court did not previously provide a detailed explanation of why it accepted the defendants' view that the 1971 Plan applies, it will do so now.

Section 11.4 of the 1993 Plan provides as follows:

The terms and conditions of the Plan as restated herein shall amend and supersede, effective October 1, 1976, the terms and conditions of the Glaziers Local 963 Pension Plan, as in effect prior to October 1, 1976; provided, however, that the provisions of such prior plan shall continue to govern the rights of all Employees who were covered thereunder and who do not become Active Employees on or after October 1, 1976, except as otherwise stated herein.

1993 Plan ยง 11.4 (emphasis added). As for who constitutes an "Active Employee" under the 1993 ...


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