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Pacconi v. Trustees of the United Mine Workers of America

October 26, 2006

JOSEPH F. PACCONI, JR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
TRUSTEES OF THE UNITED MINE WORKERS OF AMERICA, HEALTH AND RETIREMENT FUND OF 1974; MICHAEL H. HOLLAND; MICHAEL W. BUCKNER; STEVEN F. SCHAAB; AND B.V. HYLER, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terrence F. McVerry United States District Court Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Presently pending before the Court for disposition are the MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, with brief in support, filed by Defendants, Trustees of the United Mine Workers of America, Health and Retirement Fund of 1974; Michael H. Holland; Michael W. Buckner; Steven F. Schaab; and B.V. Hyler (collectively referred to as the "Trustees") (Document Nos. 9 and 10) and the MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, with brief in support, filed by Plaintiff, Joseph F. Pacconi, Jr. ("Plaintiff") (Document Nos. 12 and 13).

After careful consideration of the parties' cross motions for summary judgment, the filings in support and opposition thereto, the memoranda of the parties, the relevant case law, and the record as a whole, the Court finds that there is not sufficient record evidence upon which a reasonable factfinder could return a verdict for Plaintiff on his claim under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA") that his request for disability pension benefits was improperly denied by the Trustees. There is, however, sufficient record evidence to support the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the Trustees. Therefore, the Court will grant the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the Trustees and deny the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the Plaintiff.

Summary Judgment Standard of Review

Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

[Summary Judgment] shall be rendered forthwith 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.

In interpreting Rule 56(c), the United States Supreme Court has stated:

The plain language . . . mandates entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, 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. In such a situation, there can be no genuine issue as to material fact, since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the non-moving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.

Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

An issue of material fact is genuine only if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The Court must view the facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party and the burden of establishing that no genuine issue of material fact exists rests with the movant. Id. at 242. The "existence of disputed issues of material fact should be ascertained by resolving all inferences, doubts and issues of credibility against the moving party." Ely v. Hall's Motor Transit Co., 590 F.2d 62, 66 (3d Cir. 1978) (quoting Smith v. Pittsburgh Gage & Supply Co., 464 F.2d 870. 874 (3d Cir. 1972)). Final credibility determinations on material issues cannot be made in the context of a motion for summary judgment, nor can the district court weigh the evidence. Josey v. Hollingsworth Corp., 996 F.2d 632 (3d Cir. 1993); Petruzzi's IGA Supermarkets, Inc. v. Darling-Delaware Co., 998 F.2d 1224 (3d Cir. 1993).

When the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party's burden can be "discharged by `showing' -- that is, pointing out to the District Court -- that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. If the moving party has carried this burden, the burden shifts to the non-moving party who cannot rest on the allegations of the pleadings and must "do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986); Petruzzi's IGA Supermarkets, 998 F.2d at 1230. When the non-moving party's evidence in opposition to a properly supported motion for summary judgment is "merely colorable" or "not significantly probative," the court may grant summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50.

BACKGROUND

As the law requires, all disputed facts and inferences are resolved most favorable to the Plaintiff, Joseph F. Pacconi, Jr. Plaintiff began working in the coal mines as a United Mine Workers of America ("UMWA") represented employee in 1970. Plaintiff continued to work in the mines until he was laid off on January 14, 2000. On June 20, 2003, Plaintiff applied for a disability pension from the UMWA 1974 Pension Trust, one of several employee benefit trusts that are collectively referred to as the UMWA Health and Retirement Funds. On May 15, 2005, a disability pension analyst concluded that Plaintiff did not meet the criteria for qualification of a disability pension. On June 16, 2005, Plaintiff's attorney submitted additional information to the Trustees for their consideration during the administrative appeal of Plaintiff's disability pension denial. On October 13, 2005, the Trustees informed Plaintiff that they had reaffirmed their denial of his disability pension application.

On October 26, 2005, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court in which he alleges wrongful denial of disability pension benefits against Defendant Trustees under ERISA, 29 U.S.C. § 1001, et seq. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment which concern the denial of Plaintiff's claim for disability pension benefits. The central issue in this case is whether the Trustees acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner when they denied Plaintiff's application for disability pension benefits.

The UMWA 1974 Pension Trust ("1974 Pension Trust")

The 1974 Pension Trust was established pursuant to the National Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement of 1974 and in accordance with Section 302(c) of the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947, 29 U.S.C. § 186(c). Article II.C of the 1974 Pension Plan provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

A participant who (a) has at least 10 years of signatory service prior to retirement, and (b) becomes totally disability as a result of a mine accident . . . shall, upon retirement (herein after "Disability Retirement"), be eligible for a pension while so disabled. A Participant shall be considered to be totally disabled only if by reason of such accident such Participant is subsequently determined to be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act or its successor.

Article II.C., 1974 Pension Plan, Ex. B at 5 (emphasis added).

Pursuant to the authority granted the Trustees in Article VIII.B.(1) of the 1974 Pension Plan, the Trustees have developed a series of interpretative guidelines called "Questions and Answers" ("Q&A") to assist them in interpreting the provisions of the Plan in a uniform and consistent manner. In particular, the Trustees have adopted Q&A 252, which provides that a miner is totally disabled as a result of a mine accident if there is:

(1) Unexpectedness: The disability must have been unlooked for and unforeseen; (2) Definiteness: The disability must be traceable to a definite time, place and occasion which occurred within the course of the mine worker's employment. A progressive disease does not meet this test and therefore cannot be a disability that resulted from a mine accident; (3) Force or Impact: The disability must have been caused by the exertion or impact of some external physical force or object against the body or by the exertion or impact of the body against some external physical object; i.e. not simply the result of the mine worker's own physical condition.

As indicated above, however, miners who become disabled by progressive diseases or conditions such as . . . arthritis . . . cannot be considered "disabled as the result of a mine accident" under the test stated above.

Exhibit B

Therefore, pursuant to Article II.C of the Plan, and Q&A 252, in order to be eligible for disability pension benefits under the 1974 Pension Plan, an applicant must establish that (i) he is totally disabled as demonstrated by a Social Security Disability Income ("SSDI") award; (ii) he must have suffered a mine accident as defined under the terms of the Plan; and (iii) the mine accident must be the cause of his disability. The 1974 Pension Trust "provides disability benefits only when the applicant has carried his burden of proving that a mine accident either directly caused his disability or caused his disability by substantially aggravating a pre-existing condition." Fotta v. Trustees of the UMWA Health & Ret. Fund of 1974, 319 F.3d 612, 617 (3d Cir. 2003).

The Trustees do not dispute that (i) Plaintiff received an SSDI award or (ii) that Plaintiff was in several mine accidents. However, it is the position of the Trustees that Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that a mine accident substantially caused his disability.

Work-Related Injuries

The administrative record reflects that Plaintiff has suffered a number of work-related injuries. The first reported work-related injury in the administrative file indicates that Plaintiff sustained a back strain on January 21, 1981. The record further reflects that Plaintiff worked on January 23, 1981.

From March 9, 1985 until July 15, 1985, Plaintiff was off work due to a back strain he sustained while lifting a cement block.

On June 10, 1986, Plaintiff stepped on a mud-covered block, which caused him to fall and injure his right foot and back. He was off work from June 11, 1986 to April 27, 1987, as a result of his injuries.

From January 10, 1993 until April 12, 1993, Plaintiff was off work due to a sprain/strain of his neck which resulted when a piece of a rock fell and hit him on top of his hard hat.

On May 23, 1995, Plaintiff filed an accident report in which he reported that he felt pain in his back when he "was jacking up a long supply car onto the track." He missed no work for this injury.

On June 29, 1995, Plaintiff injured his right shoulder and neck areas when he was helping a co-worker move a piece ...


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