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Thomas v. Kimberly-Clark Corp.

November 20, 2008

KEVIN J. THOMAS
v.
KIMBERLY-CLARK CORPORATION



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kauffman, J.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Now before the Court are Defendant's Motion for Partial Judgment on the Pleadings and Motion for Judgment Regarding the Proper Scope of Discovery. For the reasons discussed below, the Motions will be granted.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Kevin J. Thomas ("Plaintiff") brings this action against Kimberly-Clark Corporation ("Kimberly-Clark") pursuant to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001, et seq., "the principles of federal common law arising from ERISA," and Pennsylvania state law. As alleged in the Complaint, Plaintiff was employed by Kimberly-Clark from 1987 to 2005 as a "dry end operator." Compl. ¶ 7. At all times material to this action, Kimberly-Clark provided group disability insurance to its employees through the Kimberly-Clark Corporation Pension Plan ("Defendant" or the "Plan").*fn1 Id. ¶ 8. From May 2002 until September 2005, Plaintiff was on a paid leave of absence due to medical problems and received disability benefits from Kimberly-Clark's insurer. Id. ¶ 12. Plaintiff alleges that in May 2002, he was "permanently disabled" and therefore eligible for Total and Permanent Disability ("TPD") Benefits under the Plan. Id. ¶ 13.

In or around January 2003, Plaintiff applied for TPD Benefits, and on May 21, 2004, Defendant informed him by letter that his application had been denied. Id. ¶ 14. Plaintiff filed a timely appeal, which was denied on April 15, 2005. Id. ¶ 20. Plaintiff then appealed that denial, and on July 12, 2005, this second appeal was denied. Id. ¶ 22. The denial letter informed Plaintiff that because he had exhausted the claims and appeals procedures under the Plan, he could either (a) file a court action pursuant to section 502(a) of ERISA, or (b) seek a "one-time special review" if he had additional information to support his claim. See July 12, 2005 Denial Letter 2, attached to Compl. at Ex. C. Plaintiff did not seek the "one-time special review" but instead filed the instant action.

Plaintiff's Complaint contains six claims for relief: (1) a claim to recover benefits under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B); (2) breach of contract under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B) and "the principles of federal common law"; (3) breach of fiduciary duty under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3); (4) promissory estoppel under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3) and "the principles of federal common law"; (5) negligent misrepresentation under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3) and "the principles of federal common law"; and (6) bad faith under 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3), federal common law, and Pennsylvania's bad faith statute, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8371. Plaintiff also demands a jury trial on all issues that may be submitted to a jury.

II. MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS

A motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) is subject to the same standard as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). See, e.g., Leamer v. Fauver, 288 F.3d 532, 535 (3d Cir. 2002). Accordingly, the Court must view all facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff and may grant the Motion only if "the moving party has established that there is no material issue of fact to resolve, and that it is entitled to judgment in its favor as a matter of law." Id. (citing Jablonski v. Pan Am. World Airways, Inc., 863 F.2d 289, 290-91 (3d Cir. 1988)).

A. Counts Three Through SiX

Defendant argues that Counts Three through Six of the Complaint fail as a matter of law. Defendant explains that to the extent that these claims are recognized at all,*fn2 Counts Three through Six must be brought pursuant to ERISA section 502(a)(3), 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3). See, e.g., Burstein v. Ret. Account Plan for Employees of Allegheny Health Educ. & Research Found., 334 F.3d 365, 383-84 (3d Cir. 2003) (listing the elements for claims of estoppel and breach of fiduciary duty under ERISA section 502(a)(3)); Curcio, 33 F.3d at 235 ("We have held that an employer can be liable under ERISA in its fiduciary capacity for making affirmative misrepresentations on breach of fiduciary duty and equitable estoppel theories. Here Mrs. Curcio primarily presents an equitable estoppel claim, which is authorized under ERISA pursuant to § 1132(a)(3)(B) set forth above." (citations omitted)). Because claims brought pursuant to ERISA section 502(a)(3) are limited to "appropriate equitable relief," 29 U.S.C. § 1132(a)(3)(B), Defendant contends that these claims seek relief not permitted under ERISA.

As the Supreme Court has explained, "appropriate equitable relief" under section 502(a)(3) is limited to "those categories of relief that were typically available in equity." Great-West Life & Annuity Ins. Co. v. Knudson, 534 U.S. 204, 210 (2002) (quoting Mertens v. Hewitt Assocs., 508 U.S. 248, 256 (1993)). "Thus, a plaintiff seeking relief under ERISA § 502(a)(3) must tie that request to a form of relief typically available in equity." Eichorn v. AT&T Corp., 484 F.3d 644, 655 (3d Cir. 2007). "Almost invariably . . . suits seeking (whether by judgment, injunction, or declaration) to compel the defendant to pay a sum of money to the plaintiff are suits for 'money damages,' as that phrase has traditionally been applied, since they seek no more than compensation for loss resulting from the defendant's breach of legal duty." Great-West, 534 U.S. at 210 (quoting Bowen v. Massachusetts, 487 U.S. 879, 918-19 (1988) (Scalia, J., dissenting)). Claims for money damages are considered claims for legal, not equitable, relief. See, e.g., Mertens, 508 U.S. at 255.

Defendant contends that Plaintiff's requests for "past due contractual benefits" and "future benefits" are essentially legal claims for monetary damages which are not permitted as "appropriate equitable relief."*fn3 See, e.g., Eichorn, 484 F.3d at 655 ("As earlier noted, the plaintiffs sought a decree from the District Court requiring Lucent to adjust its pension records retroactively to create an obligation to pay the plaintiffs more money, both in the past and going forward. The District Court rightly saw this as being, in essence, a request for compensatory damages merely framed as an 'equitable' injunction. The Court thus rightly concluded that the requested relief is not available under § 502(a)(3)."); Young v. Reconstructive Orthopaedic Assocs., II, P.C., 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10377, at *48-49 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 16, 2005) ("Here, plaintiff seeks payment of the benefits she would have received had [the defendant] not breached its fiduciary duty to enroll her in the [long term disability plan]. This remedy does not fall within the narrow set of remedies defined by the Supreme Court as appropriate under ERISA § 502(a)(3). . . . [T]he relief plaintiff requests 'appears to be within the scope of non-equitable money damages defined by the Supreme Court as compensation for loss resulting from the defendant's breach of legal duty.'" (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Ranke v. SanofiSynthelabo, Inc., 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22427, at *20 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 2, 2004))); Tannenbaum v. UNUM Life Ins. Co., 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5664, at *19 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 27, 2004) (concluding that the plaintiff's section 502(a)(3) claim for "restitution of benefits" not permitted because "[t]he theory of Plaintiff's case is that Defendants wrongfully failed to pay him the benefits he was due under the Plan. 'A claim for money due and owing under a contract is quintessentially an action at law.'" (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Great-West, 534 U.S. at 210)).

Conceding that his claims for benefits are legal rather than equitable, Plaintiff contends that because he seeks "other relief as this Honorable Court deems just and proper," the Court should construe Counts Three through Six as seeking additional equitable relief, thus permitting them to survive the Motion. Notably, he fails to identify what type of equitable relief he is seeking,*fn4 nor does he cite a single case to support the proposition that a clause seeking generic relief is sufficient to transform the request from legal to equitable. Indeed, several courts considering these generic clauses have found them insufficient under section 502(a)(3). See, e.g., West v. AK Steel Corp. Ret. Accumulation Pension Plan, 484 F.3d 395, 403 (6th Cir. 2007) ("The prayer for relief . . . centers on money damages for the alleged underpayment of a benefit. Although the plaintiffs also request unspecified 'other relief as may be deemed just and equitable,' that phrase is found in the portion of the complaint requesting costs and attorney fees. This is insufficient to assert a proper equitable claim under § 502(a)(3) where the 'heart of the plaintiff's prayer for relief was a request for recovery of additional lump sum benefits.'" (quoting Crosby v. Bowater, Inc. Ret. Plan, 382 F.3d 587, 589 (6th Cir. 2004))); Young, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10377, at *50 (concluding that construing the request for "all other damages recoverable under law" as a request for equitable ...


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