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Verizon Employee Benefits Committee v. Kosinski

March 3, 2010

THE VERIZON EMPLOYEE BENEFITS COMMITTEE
v.
EDWARD KOSINSKI, ET AL.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: O'neill, J.

MEMORANDUM

The Verizon Employee Benefits Committee has filed this interpleader action requesting that the Court decide to which of the defendants it should disburse a pre-retirement death benefit it currently holds in the name of a former Verizon Pennsylvania employee Loretta Kosinski. It has named Edward Kosinski*fn1 , Richard J. Kocka*fn2 , Gerard A. Kosinski, Stephen J. Kosinski, Timothy J. Carman and the Estates of Loretta Kosinski and Kasia Kocka as defendants. Presently before me are plaintiff's amended complaint for interpleader (Doc. 30), defendant Edward Kosinski's motion for summary judgment*fn3 (Doc. 26), plaintiff's response (Doc. 29), defendant Timothy Carman's response (Doc. 30) and defendant Edward Kosinski's replies to defendant Carman's response (Doc. 32 and plaintiff's response (Doc. 33). On March 2, 2010, I heard oral argument. For the following reasons, I will grant Kosinski's motion for summary judgment against Carman and accept the suggestion of the remaining parties that they be given some time to discuss the possibility of settlement.

BACKGROUND

Loretta Kosinski was an employee of Verizon Pennsylvania and, by virtue of her employment, a participant in the Verizon Pension Plan for Mid-Atlantic Associates. On November 4, 2000, she completed a pension beneficiary designation form naming Timothy J. Carman, her then-husband, as the primary beneficiary of her death benefit under the plan. On May 3, 2006, in light of Loretta's pending divorce from Carman, she telephoned the plan administrator to determine how she could remove Carman as her beneficiary. She was told that because the divorce had not been finalized she could not remove Carman without his consent. On May 23, 2006, the divorce decree was signed by the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. She called the plan administrator on June 5, 2006 to renew her request to remove Carman as her beneficiary. The plan administrator with whom she spoke erroneously informed her that she could not change her beneficiary over the phone. That administrator promised to mail Loretta the necessary forms but never did so. There is no evidence to suggest that Loretta took any additional steps to secure a beneficiary change.

Lorretta died on May 4, 2007. At that time, Carman was still named as her beneficiary. On September 20, 2007, the Verizon Claims Review Unit ("VCRU") issued a letter to the attorney representing Loretta's estate advising him that Carman was the named beneficiary and providing instructions on how to challenge that designation. On October 29, 2007, Edward Kosinski, Loretta's brother, filed a claim with the VCRU on behalf of Loretta's estate arguing that Loretta's intent to change her plan beneficiary was apparent. The VCRU, by a letter dated March 5, 2008, denied the estate's claim. Edward then appealed to the Verizon Claims Review Committee ("VCRC"). The VCRC considered the appeal to be on behalf of both Edward individually and Loretta's Estate. The VCRC also understood Carman to be asserting a claim to the pre-retirement death benefit under the plan. On August 20, 2008, the VCRC denied the appeal and notified Edward that because of the competing claims to Loretta's death benefit it had authorized the filing of the complaint in interpleader that brings this case before me now. In the current proceedings, plaintiff has expressly disclaimed any right to the death benefit.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that summary judgment is proper "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." An issue of material fact 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, 255 (1986). Summary judgment will 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." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The party moving for summary judgment has the burden of demonstrating that there are no genuine issues of material fact. Id. at 322-23. If the moving party sustains the burden, the nonmoving party must set forth facts demonstrating the existence of a genuine issue for trial. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.

When a properly supported motion for summary judgment is made, "an adverse party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of the adverse party's pleading, but the adverse party's response, by affidavits or as otherwise provided in this rule, must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). The adverse party must raise "more than a mere scintilla of evidence in its favor" in order to overcome a summary judgment motion and cannot survive by relying on unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions. Williams v. Borough of W. Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 460 (3d Cir. 1989). However, 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), citations and quotation marks omitted.

DISCUSSION

This case presents two issues for my review. First, I must decide whether Carman has any claim to the death benefit. Second, I must decide to whom the death benefit should be disbursed. At oral argument, however, counsel for the Kosinski family suggested that if summary judgment is granted against Carman, the remaining parties may be able to reach a settlement with respect to the second question.

I. Carman Has No Claim to the Death Benefit

A. Legal Standard

The Kosinski family argues that the plain language of the plan provides for termination of a spouse's right to plan benefits upon divorce and therefore that they are due judgment as a matter of law. Carman argues that summary judgment is inappropriate at this stage because no discovery has been conducted and there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the plan is applicable and, if so, whether it is the only applicable policy statement.

The interpretation of the plan is a matter of law appropriate for disposition by the Court. See Acme Markets, Inc. v. Fed. Armored Exp., Inc., 648 A.2d 1218, 1220 n.4 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1994) (citing Halpin v. Lasalle Univ., 639 A.2d 37, 39 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1994) ("[t]he interpretation of a contract is a question of law.")). The plan states in relevant part that "the provisions of this restated plan document are effective January 1, 1999, and apply only with respect to Employees who perform services for the Company or an Affiliate on or after such date and who are Participants in this Part I of the Verizon Pension Plan for Mid-Atlantic Associates (the "Plan")." Verizon Pension Plan for Mid-Atlantic Associates ยง 1.2(a) (restated effective Jan. 1, 1999; reflects amendments through Nov. 30, 2007) (Pl.'s Exh. A). It is not disputed that Loretta was an employee who performed services for the company after January 1, 1999 and was a participant in the plan. Indeed, both plaintiff and the Kosinski family have provided a plethora of correspondence from the VCRU and VCRC discussing Loretta's rights under the plan. There is no ...


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