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Deppenbrook v. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

United States District Court, District Circuit

June 17, 2013

PAUL DEPPENBROOK, et al., Plaintiffs,


REGGIE B. WALTON, District Judge.

The pro se plaintiffs, a group of former employees of a now defunct steel product producer, Republic Technologies International, LLC ("Republic"), seek review under the Administrative Procedure Act ("APA"), 5 U.S.C. § 706 (2012), of agency determinations made by the defendant, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation ("PBGC"), pursuant to the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), as amended, 29 U.S.C. §§ 1002-1461 (2012). See generally Second Amended Complaint ("Compl."). Currently before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Upon careful consideration of the parties' submissions, [1] the Court concludes for the following reasons that the PBGC's motion must be granted, and the plaintiffs' motion must be denied.


A. The Employment Income Security Act of 1974

The ERISA was enacted in 1974 to, among other things, "ensure that employees and their beneficiaries would not be deprived of anticipated retirement benefits by termination of pension plans before sufficient funds [had] been accumulated in the plans." Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. R.A. Gray & Co. , 467 U.S. 717, 720 (1984). Congress's goal in enacting the ERISA was "to guarantee that if a worker has been promised a defined pension benefit upon retirement-and if he has fulfilled whatever conditions are required to obtain a vested benefit-he actually will receive it." Id . (quoting Nachman Corp. v. Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. , 446 U.S. 359, 375 (1980)). The ERISA is divided into three major parts. The first details reporting and disclosure requirements, participation and vesting, funding of pension plans, fiduciary responsibilities, and administration and enforcement. 29 U.S.C. §§ 1002-1191c. The second identifies the agencies charged with administering the ERISA, as well as the outlines procedures for doing so, and also establishes a task force. Id . §§ 1120-1242. The third part, which is most pertinent to this case and thus discussed in further detail below, addresses insurance for certain types of pension plans through the PBGC. Id . §§ 1301-1461.

B. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation

"There is established within the Department of Labor a body corporate... known as the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation." Id . § 1302(a). The PBGC's board of directors is comprised of the Secretaries of the United States Departments of Treasury, Labor, and Commerce, with the Secretary of Labor serving as the chair of the board. Id . § 1302(d). The PBGC is charged with carrying out the following duties:

(1) to encourage the continuation and maintenance of voluntary private pension plans for the benefit of their participants,
(2) to provide for the timely and uninterrupted payment of pension benefits to participants and beneficiaries under plans to which this title applies, and
(3) to maintain premiums established by the corporation under [29 U.S.C. § 1306] at the lowest level consistent with carrying out its obligations under this subchapter.

29 U.S.C. § 1302(a)(1)-(3).

C. Factual and Procedural Background

The following facts are undisputed.[2]

1. The Republic Technologies Shutdown and the Plan Termination Date Litigation

The plaintiffs are all former employees of Republic's now defunct Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, facility. Compl. ¶ 23. Republic was the product of "a pair of mergers in 1998 and 1999."[3] Def.'s Mem. at 3. A combination of market conditions, high debt obligations, and deteriorating liquidity at Republic led the company to "ha[ve] difficulty meeting its financial obligations." Id . Thus, the "PBGC attempted to secure better funding for the [company's] [p]ension [p]lans by entering into agreements with [Republic] that would increase the level of funding." Id. at 3-4. As part of those efforts, "[Republic] contributed a total of $64.5 million to its [p]ension [p]lans in addition to its legally required funding contributions." Id. at 4.

Republic was ultimately "[u]nable to meet is financial obligations, " and filed for bankruptcy in 2001.[4] Id. at 4. After determining that the company "could not reorganize as a standalone entity and would instead have to sell its assets[, ]... ce[ase]... [its] operations[, ] and... resum[e]... operations [under] a new owner after the assets were sold, [Republic] issued" notices to its employees pursuant to the Worker Adjustment Retraining and Notification Act ("WARN Act"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2101-09 (2012). Id. at 4. The notices stated:

As you know, the Company filed a petition with the Bankruptcy Court last year seeking to reorganize the business. Last week, we signed a letter of intent to sell substantially all the assets of Republic to a new company, RTI Acquisition Company. We have filed a motion with the Bankruptcy Court to approve this transaction, subject to higher and better offers. Some of Republic's assets are not included in the proposed transaction, including the Beaver Falls Cold Finished facility. Accordingly, subject to the approval of the Bankruptcy Court, the Company plans to permanently and entire [sic] close its plant located at 220 Seventh Avenue, Beaver Falls, PA 15010. The expected date of first separation will be between July 17, 2002 and August 1, 2002. A list of the job titles of positions to be affected by the plant closure and the names of workers currently holding the affected jobs is also attached hereto. This is a formal notice pursuant to the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification ("WARN") Act. The Company expressly reserves its right to invoke any exception available to it under the WARN Act should circumstances change.

Administrative Record ("AR") at 28. "Around the same time, [Republic] negotiated an agreement with [the United Steelworkers of America Union ("United Steelworkers")] under which (i) July 9, 2002, was specified as the shutdown' date of [Republic] for purposes of the shutdown benefits... under [its] [p]ension [p]lans and (ii) [Republic] employees who otherwise met the age and service requirements would be deemed eligible for shutdown benefits." Def.'s Mem. at 4-5. As explained by the Sixth Circuit,

[s]hutdown benefits are enhanced early retirement benefits for certain workers who are affected by a facility shutdown or business cessation. They permit participants who meet certain age and service requirements to begin receiving a retirement benefit after a plant shutdown, rather than having to wait while out of work to reach a specific retirement age. Unlike other early and normal retirement benefits, shutdown benefits usually are not advance-funded. Because this enhanced benefit may be paid ...

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