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Schreibeis v. Retirement Plan for Employees of Duquesne Light Co.

December 15, 2005


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambrose, Chief District Judge


Plaintiff, Kathryn A. Schreibeis ("Plaintiff" or "Schreibeis"), initiated this action on June 29, 2004, alleging violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. ("ERISA"), against Defendants Retirement Plan for Employees of Duquesne Light Company ("Plan"), Administrative Committee of the Plan (collectively "Plan Defendants"), and Concentra Medical Centers, L.L.C. ("Concentra"). Count I of the Complaint asserts an action for unlawful denial of disability retirement benefits against the Plan Defendants, and Count II asserts a claim for breach of fiduciary duty against Concentra.

Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment filed by Plaintiff (Docket No. 25) and the Plan Defendants (Docket No. 19). Concentra also has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment against Plaintiff. (Docket No. 22). After careful consideration of the parties' submissions and for the reasons set forth below, Concentra's Motion is granted, the Plan Defendants' Motion is granted in part and denied in part, and Plaintiff's Motion is granted in part and the matter is remanded to the Plan Administrator for further proceedings.


Unless otherwise indicated, the following material facts are undisputed.*fn1 Defendant Retirement Plan for Employees of Duquesne Light Company ("Plan") is an employee pension benefit plan existing for the exclusive purpose of providing retirement pension benefits to current and former employees of Duquesne Light Company ("Duquesne Light"). The Plan is maintained and administrated pursuant to a written document ("Plan Document"), amended and restated effective April 1, 2001.*fn2 Prior to January 1, 2002, the Plan was administrated by the Administrative Committee of the Retirement Plan for Employees of Duquesne Light Company, pursuant to Section 8.010 of the Plan Document. Plan 0296. According to the Plan, the Administrative Committee ceased to exist as of January 1, 2002. An amendment to the Plan Document indicates that since January 1, 2002, Duquesne Light has served as the named fiduciary and Plan Administrator. Plan 0331-0332.

Plaintiff began employment with Duquesne Light Company ("Duquesne Light") on October 29, 1979. Plaintiff sustained a work-related shoulder injury in or around November 1998. Her last day of work was November 19, 1999, and her official date of termination was October 30, 2000.

In or about May, 2002, Plaintiff filed an application with the Plan Administrator for a disability retirement benefit. To qualify for a disability retirement benefit under the Plan, a participant must have completed at least ten years of vesting service and become "totally and permanently disabled" while an employee and prior to attainment of normal retirement age. Plan 0261. As defined in the Plan Document, "totally and permanently disabled" means: that a physical or mental condition renders a Participant disabled to the extent that (i) the Participant's physician certifies, in the manner prescribed by the Plan Administrator, that the Participant is permanently and totally disabled, (ii) the Participant is found by a medical examiner selected by the Plan Administrator to be totally, and presumably, permanently disabled, and (iii) the Participant is eligible for and receives disability benefits under the Social Security Act.

Plan 0254 (Plan Document § 1.480).

On or about January 24, 2002, the Social Security Administration issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act as of November 19, 1999, and that she was entitled to disability insurance benefits. Plan 0046-0059. Plaintiff provided the Plan Administrator with notice of her Social Security award in conjunction with her application for disability retirement benefits. Plaintiff's primary care physician, William S. Zillweger, M.D., also certified on the appropriate form ("Physician's Report") that he had examined Plaintiff and that Plaintiff became totally and permanently disabled on or about November 19, 1999. Plan 0008. Dr. Zillweger described Plaintiff's diagnosis as "history of stage III breast carcinoma, status post mastectomy. Shoulder impingement." Id.*fn3

On or about June 13, 2002, the Plan Administrator sent the Physician's Report and other information to Paul Seiferth, M.D., requesting that he review the information and indicate on the Physician's Report whether he agreed or disagreed with Dr. Zillweger's opinion. Plan 0010. On or about June 18, 2002, Dr. Seiferth checked a box on the Physician's Report indicating that he disagreed that Plaintiff was totally and permanently disabled. Plan 0008.

Clare Browne, Director, Qualified Plans for Duquesne Light, sent Plaintiff a letter dated July 17, 2002 indicating that Plaintiff's application for a disability retirement benefit had been denied. The letter informed Plaintiff that "[a]lthough approved for disability benefits under the Social Security Act and determined disabled by your physician on the same date, November 19, 1999, the Company Physician does not agree that your disability is total and permanent based on the information provided by you." Plan 0038. The letter further explained that because the Company Physician did not agree that Plaintiff's disability was total and permanent, she did not qualify as "totally and permanently disabled" as defined by the Plan. Id. The letter concluded by informing Plaintiff that she had a period of 180 days to appeal the denial of her claim; that she could submit written documents, comments, records and other information in support of her appeal; and that she would be provided, upon written request, free and reasonable access to any other information relevant to her appeal. Id.

On or about August 1, 2002, Plaintiff appealed the Plan Administrator's initial claim determination. Plaintiff's appeal letter stated that Dr. Zillweger would be "sending a letter under separate cover" and that she also had "a rather large packet of medical records and social security paperwork to be forwarded if needed." Plan 0039. On or about August 14, 2002, Browne wrote to Plaintiff indicating that she had received Plaintiff's appeal request and stating that "[w]e will await the letter from Dr. Zillweger and other documents you will be sending that you mentioned in your August 1, 2002 letter to support your appeal." Plan 0042.

Plaintiff forwarded Browne her supplemental medical documentation with a letter dated August 21, 2002. At the conclusion of her letter, Plaintiff indicated that "[a]s I understand, Dr. Zillweger should be forwarding his letter shortly." Plan 0045. Browne then directed that the entire administrative record (as it then-existed) be provided to Dr. Seiferth to be considered in his determination whether Plaintiff was totally and permanently disabled. Browne Aff. ¶ 17.

In an e-mail to Browne dated August 30, 2002, Dr. Seiferth indicated that "[u]pon review of supplemental medical records, I find no supporting evidence to reverse the previous decision of 'not concurring with disability retirement.' Decision: I do not concur with granting disability retirement to Kathryn Schreibeis." Plan 0228. In a letter dated September 4, 2002, Browne notified Plaintiff that the Plan Administrator had denied her appeal. The letter explained that "[t]he physician selected by the Plan Administrator has reviewed the additional medical documentation, as requested by your attorney and he does not confirm Dr. Zillweger's conclusion that you are Totally and Permanently Disabled." Plan 0229.

On or about September 10, 2002, Plaintiff sent a letter to the Plan Administrator questioning how the Plan physician could have rendered a decision without having Dr. Zillweger's letter. Plaintiff indicated that as of September 9, 2002, Dr. Zillweger had not yet sent the letter. The Plan Defendants did not respond.

On June 29, 2004, Plaintiff filed her Complaint against Defendants in this Court. (Docket No. 1). The Plan Defendants answered the Complaint on August 24, 2004 (Docket No. 3). On September 20, 2004, Concentra filed a Motion to Dismiss Count II of the Complaint (Docket No. 7). I denied the Motion to Dismiss on October 27, 2004, (Docket No. 12), after which Concentra filed its Answer (Docket No. 13). On March 21, 2004, the parties filed the instant Motions for Summary Judgment and supporting briefs. The Motions are now ripe for review.


Summary judgment may only be granted if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Rule 56 mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against the party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

In considering a motion for summary judgment, this Court must examine the facts in a light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Int'l Raw Materials, Ltd. v. Stauffer Chem. Co., 898 F.2d 946, 949 (3d Cir. 1990). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate that the evidence creates no genuine issue of material fact. Chipollini v. Spencer Gifts, Inc., 814 F.2d 893, 896 (3d Cir. 1987). The dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is material when it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id. Where the nonmoving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the party moving for summary judgment may meet its burden by showing that the evidentiary materials of record, if reduced to admissible evidence, would be insufficient to carry the non-movant's burden of proof at trial.Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. Once the moving party satisfies its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party, who must go beyond its pleadings, and designate specific facts by the use of affidavits, depositions, admissions, or answers to interrogatories showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324. Summary judgment must therefore be granted "against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." White v. Westinghouse Elec. Co., 862 F.2d 56, 59 (3d Cir. 1988) (quoting Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322).


A. Claim for Denial of Benefits Against Plan Defendants

1. Administrative Committee as Defendant

Before reaching the merits of Plaintiff's denial of benefits claim, I first address the Plan Defendants' argument that the Administrative Committee is an improper defendant and thus should be dismissed as a party. This portion of Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is granted. The undisputed evidence shows that as of January 1, 2002 -- prior to the date Plaintiff filed her application for benefits -- the Plan was amended to remove the Administrative Committee as the Plan Administrator and replace it with the Company. Plan 0331-0332 (First Amendment to the Plan); Browne Aff. ¶ 2. After January 1, 2002, the Administrative Committee ceased to exist. Browne Aff. ¶ 2. Because the Administrative Committee is a nonexistent and, therefore, improper party, the claims against it are dismissed. This ruling in no way affects the Plan's status as Defendant or its liability, if any, with respect to Count I of Plaintiff's Complaint. Indeed, the Plan admits that it "is and remains the only proper Defendant and that is all that is necessary." Plan Defendants' Surreply (Docket No. 38) at 3.

2. ERISA Standard of Review

"ERISA does not set out the standard of review for an action brought under §1132(a)(1)(B) by a participant alleging that he has been denied benefits to which he is entitled under a covered plan." Mitchell v. Eastman Kodak Co., 113 ...

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