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United Steelworkers of America AFL-CIO/CLC v. Rohm and Haas Co.

January 28, 2010


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


This matter has once again been brought before the Court for disposition of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment on the claims of Plaintiffs Lewis Griffin and George Hemmert. For the reasons outlined in the pages that follow, both of the parties' motions shall be granted in part and denied in part.

History of the Case

According to the allegations contained in the First Amended Complaint*fn1, Defendant Rohm and Haas Company provided various types of disability benefits to its employees pursuant to bargained-for agreements negotiated by the plaintiff United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO/CLC on behalf of its members. These disability benefits were provided by and through the Defendant Rohm and Haas Company Health and Welfare Plan, as it was amended from time to time. The individual plaintiffs are all members of the plaintiff Union who were employed at various times by Defendant Rohm and Haas Company, who became disabled from working and who made claims for both short-term and long-term disability benefits and/or for the Disability Retirement Allowance ("DRA") under the defendant plan.

In the cases of moving Plaintiffs Lewis Griffin and George Hemmert, both applied for and received short and long term disability benefits and social security disability income benefits ("SSDI"), but were initially denied benefits under the DRA. Although Mr. Griffin's application for DRA was eventually approved in July 2005, Rohm and Haas took his SSDI income as an offset. After application of this offset, Mr. Griffin's DRA benefit did not exceed his current LTD monthly benefit and he therefore did not receive the DRA. Mr. Griffin seeks DRA benefits, retroactive to at least July 2004 without an offset for SSDI income. Mr. Hemmert's DRA application was never approved and although he received LTD benefits through September 2007, Rohm and Haas terminated those benefits at that time on the grounds that Plaintiff had failed to provide evidence of ongoing disability. Mr. Hemmert seeks reinstatement of his LTD benefits with an opportunity to apply for the DRA or, alternatively, payment of the DRA benefit retroactive to August 2003 without an SSDI offset. All of the plaintiffs*fn2 submit that, pursuant to §502(a)(1)(B) of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. §1132(a)(1)(B), they are entitled to recover benefits due and to enforce their rights under the Rohm and Haas Company Health and Welfare Plan and seek: (1) a declaration that the defendants have violated their obligations and failed to administer benefits due under the Plan and the labor agreements pursuant to which the Plan was negotiated; (2) a Court Order directing Rohm and Haas to perform its contractual and statutory duties and (3) an award of counsel fees and costs to Plaintiffs and their attorneys.

By way of the competing motions now before us, the parties each contend that no genuine material issues of fact exist and that they are entitled to the entry of judgment in their favor as a matter of law.

Standards Applicable to Resolving Rule 56 Motions

Summary judgment is merited "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). As to materiality, the substantive law will identify which facts are material. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed. 2d 202 (1986). Summary judgment is precluded when there is a dispute over facts which might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id. Once the moving party has met its initial burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact exists, the nonmoving party cannot rely on conclusory allegations in its pleadings or in memoranda and briefs to establish a genuine issue of material fact. Pastore v. Bell Telephone Co. of Pa., 24 F.3d 508, 511 (3d Cir. 1994). Instead, the nonmoving party "must make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of every element essential to his case, based on the affidavits or by the depositions and admissions on file." Harter v. GAF Corp., 967 F. 2d 846, 852 (3d Cir. 1992).


Congress enacted ERISA to "protect... the interests of participants in employee benefit plans and their beneficiaries" by setting out substantive regulatory requirements for employee benefit plans*fn3 and to "provide for appropriate remedies, sanctions, and ready access to the Federal courts." Aetna Health, Inc. v. Davila, 542 U.S. 200, 208, 124 S.Ct. 2488, 2495, 159 L.Ed. 2d 312 (2004), quoting 29 U.S.C. §1001. The purpose of ERISA is to provide a uniform regulatory regime over employee benefit plans. Id.

Section 502(a)(1)(B) of ERISA authorizes the institution of a civil action by an aggrieved plan participant by stating as follows in relevant part:

(a) Persons empowered to bring a civil action

A civil action may be brought -

(1) by a participant or beneficiary -....

(B) to recover benefits due to him under the terms of his plan, to enforce his rights under the terms of the plan, or to clarify his rights to future benefits under the terms of the plan;

29 U.S.C. §1132(a)(1)(B).

Under ERISA, a plan should determine benefits eligibility by providing a full and fair review of all evidence relating to an alleged disability. Michaels v. The Equitable Life Assurance Society of the U.S., Civ. A. No. 04-CV-3250, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12238 at *5 (E. D. Pa. June 20, 2005), citing Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. v. Bruch, 489 U.S. 101, 102, 109 S.Ct. 948, 950, 103 L.Ed. 2d 80 (1989). Although the ERISA statute itself does not set out the appropriate standard of review for actions under §1132(a)(1)(B) challenging benefit eligibility determinations, the Supreme Court has set forth four relevant principles of review of benefit determinations by fiduciaries or plan administrators:

(1) In "determining the appropriate standard of review, a court should be guided by principles of trust law;" in doing so it should analogize a plan administrator to the trustee of a common-law trust and it should consider a benefit determination to be a fiduciary act in which the ...

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