No. 193 Pittsburgh 1980, Appeal from the Order dated February 14, 1980, Court of Common Pleas, Allegheny County, Civil Division, at No. 11532 of 1979.
John Edward Beard, III, Pittsburgh, for appellant.
Michael J. Seymour, Pittsburgh, submitted a brief on behalf of appellee.
Cercone, President Judge, and Spaeth, Cavanaugh, Wickersham, Brosky, Beck and Johnson, JJ.
[ 312 Pa. Super. Page 328]
This appeal presents the question whether or not the exhaustion doctrine should be applied in this Commonwealth to disputes involving the administration of a company-sponsored retirement plan established under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).*fn1 Specifically, we here consider whether a former employee who claims he is not receiving the amount of retirement benefits to which he believes himself to be entitled under the employer's retirement plan must appeal the denial of his request for further benefits to the employer's pension committee before filing an action against the employer in the courts, when the claims procedure of the retirement plan provides that any person whose application is denied may file a request to the pension committee for a review of the decision, and where the claims procedure provides for
[ 312 Pa. Super. Page 329]
review by the same company-controlled committee which initially denied the claim.
B.F. Tatterson, appellee, a retired salaried employee of defendant Koppers Company, Inc. [Koppers], brought this action in assumpsit to recover retirement benefits allegedly due him under Koppers' retirement plan. Koppers filed preliminary objections arguing that the court of common pleas lacked subject matter jurisdiction over this controversy inasmuch as federal law requires the exhaustion of the remedies established by the plan before suit may be entertained. The trial court overruled Koppers' objection, and Koppers appealed to this court.*fn2
As explained hereinafter, we hold that the exhaustion doctrine applies in Pennsylvania to claims for benefits under employee benefit plans governed by ERISA and that the court of common pleas erred in assuming subject matter jurisdiction over this controversy. We therefore reverse the trial court's order.
The Koppers retirement plan provides salaried employees of Koppers and its subsidiaries with retirement benefits based primarily upon the employee's salary and years of service. The plan is funded by Koppers and is administered by a pension committee which consists of at least three officers, directors or employees of Koppers, appointed by the board of directors to serve at the board's pleasure. The pension committee is concededly a named fiduciary within the meaning of section 402(a) of ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1102(a).
The Koppers plan provides the following claims procedure:
1. All applications for benefits under the Retirement Plan of Koppers Company, Inc. and subsidiaries For Salaried Employees ("Plan") shall be filed with the Pension Committee . . . . Applications for benefits must be in writing on the forms prescribed by the Pension Committee
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and must be signed by the participant . . . . Each application shall be acted upon and approved or disapproved by the Pension Committee within 60 days following its receipt by the Company. In the event any application for benefits is denied, in whole or in part, the Pension Committee shall notify the applicant in writing of such denial and of his right to a review by the Pension Committee and shall set forth in a manner calculated to be understood by the applicant, specific reasons for such denial, specific references to pertinent plan provisions on which the denial is based, a description of any additional material or information necessary for the applicant to perfect his application, an explanation of why such material or information is necessary, and an explanation of the plan's review procedure.
2. Any person . . . whose application for benefits is denied in whole or in part may file a request to the Pension Committee for a review of the decision by submitting to the Pension Committee within one year after receiving written notice from the Pension Committee of the denial of his claim a written statement:
(a) Requesting a review of his application for benefits by the Pension Committee;
(b) Setting forth all of the grounds upon which the request for review is based and any ...