United States District Court, District of Columbia
AMENDED MEMORANDUM OPINION
BERMAN JACKSON, United States District Judge
Gwendolyn Patricia Smith, proceeding pro se, has
sued defendant Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation
(“PBGC”). She alleges that the agency's
decision that it does not owe her any benefit is not
supported by substantial evidence. Compl. [Dkt. # 1]. The
parties have both moved for summary judgment, Def.'s Mot.
for Summ. J. [Dkt. # 20] (“Def.'s Mot”);
Pl.'s Opp. for Summ. J. [Dkt. #22] (“Pl.'s
Opp.”) at 1, and the motions are before the Court for
decision. While the Court understands plaintiff's
frustration, it finds that the agency's decision was
reasonable and supported by the administrative record, and
therefore, it will grant defendant's motion and deny
worked for Trans World Airlines, Inc. (“TWA”)
from March 24, 1986 to November 11, 1991, and she accrued a
pension benefit. Admin. Record
(“AR”); Def.'s Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. of
Def.'s Mot. [Dkt. # 20-1] (“Def.'s Mem.”)
at 2-3; Compl. ¶ 1. TWA eventually went bankrupt and in
2001 PBGC became the trustee of TWA's Retirement Plan for
Employees (“Plan”). Def.'s Mem. at 1; AR 21.
the federal corporation that administers the mandatory
federal pension insurance program established by Title IV of
the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974
(“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. § 1301 et seq.
Def.'s Mem at 2; AR 21. When a plan sponsor is unable to
support a covered pension plan, PBGC becomes the trustee of
the plan, and it pays guaranteed benefits to participants and
their beneficiaries. AR 21.
September 19, 2014, thirteen years after PBGC became the
trustee of the Plan, plaintiff contacted PBGC to inquire
whether she was entitled to a pension benefit from her
employment with TWA. AR 20. In a letter dated October 24,
2014, PBGC informed plaintiff that its records showed that
her pension benefit had already been issued on May 1, 1995,
in a lump-sum payment of $12, 613.65. AR 33-34. On October
28, 2014, plaintiff appealed the agency's decision. AR
31-32. She wrote: “I have never received any
information that I was entitled to a benefit check. I have
never received a check or any other benefits from my pension
plan.” AR 31.
August 5, 2015, the PBGC's Appeals Board
(“Board”) denied plaintiff's appeal. AR 20.
The Board provided three reasons for its denial: First, the
only record in the agency's possession that related to
plaintiff, the TWA Employee Master Report (“Master
Report”), showed that the payment was issued in a
lump-sum on May 1, 1995, when plaintiff was 49 years
AR 22. The agency stated that the TWA pension records were
“generally very reliable” based on an internal
audit it conducted. AR 21, 44-51. Second, the agency cited
the policy memorandum of the “Flight Attendant
Plan” which confirmed that plaintiff was indeed
eligible for early retirement through a lump-sum payment
starting at age 45. It observed that the fact that plaintiff
was not listed among the plan participants when PCBG became
the trustee in 2001 further suggested that she had already
received her full benefits. AR 21, 26. Third, the agency
noted that plaintiff had supplied no documentary evidence to
show that the lump-sum was neither issued nor received, and
that she relied exclusively on “recollections from
twenty years ago.” AR 22.
the Board acknowledged that PBGC did not have “copies
of cancelled checks or other proof of payment, ” and
that the Board could not “completely rule out the
possibility of an error, ” it nonetheless found that
the “weight of available evidence [ ] strongly
support[ed] PBGC's determination” that plaintiff
received the lump-sum payment and consequently denied
plaintiff's appeal. AR 22-23.
12, 2016, plaintiff filed a complaint in the U.S. District
Court for the Central District of California seeking judicial
review of PBGC's decision. Compl. at 1. Defendant moved
to dismiss the case or alternatively, to transfer venue.
Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss or Transfer Venue [Dkt. # 10]. On
November 2, 2016, the case was transferred to this Court.
judgment is appropriate when the pleadings and evidence show
that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material
fact and [that] the movant is entitled to judgment as a
matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In cases involving
the review of agency action under the Administrative
Procedure Act (“APA”), Rule 56 does not apply due
to the Court's limited role in reviewing the
administrative record. Select Specialty Hosp.-Akron, LLC
v. Sebelius, 820 F.Supp.2d 13, 21 (D.D.C. 2011). Under
the APA, the agency's role is to resolve factual issues
and arrive at a decision that is supported by the
administrative record, and the court's role is to
“determine whether or not as a matter of law the
evidence in the administrative record permitted the agency to
make the decision it did.” Occidental Eng'g Co.
v. INS, 753 F.2d 766, 769 (9th Cir. 1985), citing
Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe,
401 U.S. 402, 415 (1971); see also Richards v. INS,
554 F.2d 1173, 1177 & n.28 (D.C. Cir. 1977).
the APA, a court must “hold unlawful and set aside
agency action, findings, and conclusions” that are
“arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or
otherwise not in accordance with law, ” 5 U.S.C. §
706(2)(A), in excess of statutory authority, id.
§ 706(2)(C), or “without observance of procedure
required by law.” Id. § 706(2)(D).
However, the scope of review is narrow. See Motor Vehicle
Mfrs. Ass'n of U.S., Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins.
Co., 463 U.S. 29, 43 (1983). The agency's decision
is presumed to be valid, see Citizens to Preserve Overton
Park, 401 U.S. at 415, and the court must not
“substitute its judgment for that of the agency.”
State Farm, 463 U.S. at 43. A court must be
satisfied, though, that the agency has examined the relevant
data and articulated a satisfactory explanation for its
action, “including a rational connection between the
facts found and the choice made.” Alpharma, Inc. v.
Leavitt, 460 F.3d 1, 6 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (citations
omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).
when a plaintiff proceeds pro se, the Court must
take care to construe plaintiff's filings liberally,
because complaints filed by pro se litigants are
held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings
drafted by lawyers. See Schnitzler v. United States,