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ALLEN v. ATLANTIC RICHFIELD RETIREMENT PLAN

November 29, 1979

CLARICE C. ALLEN
v.
THE ATLANTIC RICHFIELD RETIREMENT PLAN; CLARICE C. ALLEN v. THE ATLANTIC RICHFIELD RETIREMENT PLAN and THE ATLANTIC RICHFIELD COMPANY



The opinion of the court was delivered by: LUONGO

The plaintiff in these actions, *fn1" Clarice Allen, seeks to recover death benefits allegedly due to her or the estate of her late husband, David Allen, Jr., which she contends defendants, Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) and the Atlantic Richfield Retirement Plan (Plan), wrongfully refused to pay. The defendants move for summary judgment.

The following facts appear in affidavits, exhibits, and depositions submitted by the parties: David Allen, Jr., was an employee of ARCO and predecessor companies from the early 1950's until his death on June 16, 1975. In June, 1971, Allen was treated for serious coronary problems. These problems continued, and occasionally interfered with Allen's performance of his job, with the result that company officials became aware he had a serious medical problem of some kind.

 In April 1975, arrangements were made for Allen to undergo a coronary bypass operation, but were cancelled due to his weak condition. On June 2, 1975, Allen visited Dr. J. S. Biesenkamp, an ARCO staff physician familiar with his condition, discussed with him the bypass operation, and shortly thereafter Allen entered the hospital to have the operation performed.

 On June 11, 1975, Michael Mullen, Senior Personnel Advisor at ARCO, communicated with Dr. Biesenkamp and learned that, in Biesenkamp's opinion, Allen's condition was severe enough to qualify him for early retirement on the basis of disability. On that same day, at the request of John Connell, Vice-President of the division in which Allen was employed, a company representative visited Allen in the hospital, and advised him that he might be eligible for disability retirement, and also that if he elected this option under the Plan his wife would be entitled to a substantial lump sum benefit payment in the event of his death. The representative also informed Allen that it was important for him promptly to execute the necessary forms, because under the terms of the Plan the election would not become effective until thirty days after his application was made. Allen executed the forms. Six days later, on June 17, 1975, he died after having undergone the bypass operation.

 After her husband's death, plaintiff requested that the Plan pay to her the lump sum benefit provided for the beneficiary of a deceased employee who elected disability retirement. The Plan refused to tender this sum, because the regulations of the Plan require that the election of the disability retirement option be made not less than thirty days before the death of the employee, whereas Allen had died within a week of making the election. Plaintiff then instituted these actions. Because they are brought to enforce rights under a retirement plan subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), Pub.L.93-406, 88 Stat. 832, 29 U.S.C. § 1001 Et seq. (1975), I have jurisdiction over this matter under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(e)(1).

 Contract Theory

 Mrs. Allen contends in her complaint that ARCO *fn2" and the Plan breached a contractual obligation owed to her husband by failing timely to inform him of the advantages of electing disability retirement. The contractual theory stems from the following provision in the booklet distributed to employees explaining the terms of the Plan:

 
Your Employee Relations Representative will assist you in applying for benefits from the Plan. The Representative will provide you with the proper forms, explain the content of them and inform you of the deadlines for filing them.
 
Atlantic Richfield Retirement Plan, p. 17.

 Mrs. Allen contends that this language gives rise to a duty on the part of the Plan to ensure that each employee is personally informed of the various options available to him under the Plan whenever he experiences a change in his life situation that might entitle him to specific benefits. Plainly, the booklet itself is not a formal contract between the Plan and its members, but it is possible that Allen's contract theory is one of promissory estoppel: I. e., the Plan, having induced its members to expect certain assistance in keeping them informed of benefit options, is liable to members who reasonably rely on such inducement to their detriment. See Restatement of Contracts, § 90 (1932). *fn3"

 If the language of a contract is plain, the court should interpret the contract as a matter of law. Haskins v. Point Towing Co., 421 F.2d 532 (3d Cir. 1970), Cert. denied, 400 U.S. 834, 91 S. Ct. 68, 27 L. Ed. 2d 66 (1970); Associated Hardware Supply Co. v. Big Wheel Distributing Co., 355 F.2d 114 (3d Cir. 1965). In my view, the "contractual" language in the booklet cited by Mrs. Allen is unambiguous, and suggests only that administrative assistance will be made available to employees claiming benefits under the Plan. The passage does not suggest that ARCO or the Plan undertakes the responsibility to monitor the health and well-being of each individual employee to ensure that each employee will timely elect the option most beneficial to his or her particular situation. The interpretation urged by plaintiff would impose a virtually impossible burden on the administrator of the Plan, which has some 21,000 employees. It is almost inconceivable that ARCO or the Plan could have sufficient information about the health and the individual needs of each of the members to enable ARCO or the Plan to render such service.

 Moreover, one provision of a writing may not be read in isolation from other provisions; the writing must be interpreted as a whole. Law v. Reading Co., 312 F.2d 841 (3d Cir. 1963). In the Plan booklet at issue here, the very next sentence following the provision which plaintiff suggests lulled her husband into inactivity, states:

 
You should, however, be aware of the following requirement:
 
Your request for any form of immediate retirement allowance must be filed with the Plan not more than 90 days nor less than 30 days ...

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