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Lauren Bernard v. Comcast Comprehensive Health and Welfare Benefits Plan; Comcast Corporation

December 6, 2010

LAUREN BERNARD, PLAINTIFF
v.
COMCAST COMPREHENSIVE HEALTH AND WELFARE BENEFITS PLAN; COMCAST CORPORATION;
AND LIBERTY LIFE ASSURANCE COMPANY OF BOSTON INTERNATIONAL, INC., DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Chief Judge Kane)

MEMORANDUM

Pending before the Court is Defendants Comcast Comprehensive Health and Welfare Benefits Plan, Comcast Corporation and Liberty Life Assurance Company of Boston International, Inc.'s ("Defendants") motion for summary judgment. (Doc. No. 18.) The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the Court will treat Defendants' motion for summary judgment as a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and will dismiss Plaintiff's claims.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Lauren Bernard is employed by Comcast Corporation ("Comcast") as a full-time cashier. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 7.) Plaintiff has been employed by Comcast at its Harrisburg facility since June 1, 2002. (Doc. No. 20 ¶ 9.) She is as a member of the IBEW Local 1600, a bargaining unit that includes clerical and data processing employees at Comcast's Harrisburg facility. (Id. ¶ 16.) Comcast and IBEW Local 1600 are parties to a collective bargaining agreement. (Id.) The collective bargaining agreement provides that IBEW Local 1600 members who are employed by Comcast "shall be paid for personal absences due to illness or accident pursuant to the company's short term and long term disability policies." (Id. ¶ 17.) Eligible employees are paid a portion of their salaries for up to 26 weeks. (Id. ¶ 18.)

On January 14, 2008, Plaintiff left work complaining of severe headaches. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 8.) Plaintiff was pregnant and unable to take medication to treat the headaches. (Id.) On January 14, 2008, Plaintiff filed a claim for Short Term Disability ("STD") benefits coverage through Liberty Life Assurance Company of Boston International, Inc. ("Liberty"). (Id. ¶ 9; Doc. No. 20 ¶ 11.) Liberty administers Comcast's STD plan. (Doc. No. 20 ¶ 3.) On March 7, 2008, Liberty sent Plaintiff a letter denying her claim for STD benefits. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 9.) Plaintiff then filed an appeal, which was received by Liberty on March 27, 2008. (Id. ¶ 10.) Plaintiff received a letter on May 13, 2008, in which Liberty denied Plaintiff's appeal. (Id.. ¶ 12.)

In accordance with the collective bargaining agreement, Plaintiff filed a grievance that challenged Liberty's denial of STD benefits. (Id. ¶ 19.) Plaintiff's grievance was processed and an arbitration was held on February 26, 2009. (Id. ¶¶ 20-21.) On June 11, 2009, the arbitrator denied Plaintiff's grievance. (Doc. No. 20 ¶ 22.) On October 28, 2009, Plaintiff filed the complaint for the current action. (Doc. No. 1.) Defendants filed an answer with accompanying affirmative defenses on January 15, 2010. (Doc. No. 9.) On April 30, 2010, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, a brief in support, and a statement of material facts with accompanying affidavits. (Doc. Nos. 18, 19, 20.) On June 15, 2010, Plaintiff filed an answer to Defendants' statement of facts and a brief in opposition to Defendants' motion with an accompanying affidavit. (Doc. Nos. 26, 27, 28.) Defendants filed a reply brief on June 28, 2010. (Doc. No. 19.)

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

While Defendants bring their subject matter jurisdiction objection by way of a motion for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, the motion may properly be considered a motion to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). See Blanciak v. Allegheny Ludlum Corp., 77 F.3d 690, 694 n.2 (3d Cir. 2008). A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) challenges the power of a federal court to hear a claim or case. Gould Elecs. Inc. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 178 (3d Cir. 2000). In the face of a 12(b)(1) motion, the plaintiff will have the burden of proof that jurisdiction does in fact exist. Petruska v. Gannon Univ., 462 F.3d 294, 302 (3d Cir. 2006).

Motions under 12(b)(1) may take one of two forms. A "facial" attack assumes the veracity of the allegations in the complaint but argues that the pleadings fail to present an action within the court's jurisdiction. Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. and Loan Ass'n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977). If the complaint is merely deficient as pleaded, the court should grant leave to amend before dismissal with prejudice. See Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 116-17 (3d Cir. 2000). In contrast, a "factual" attack argues that, although the pleadings facially satisfy jurisdictional prerequisites, one or more of the allegations is untrue, rending the controversy outside of the court's jurisdiction. Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891. When considering a factual Rule 12(b)(1) motion, a court "is free to weigh the evidence and satisfy itself as to the existence of its power to hear the case." Id. Additionally, "no presumptive truthfulness attaches to plaintiff's allegations, and the existence of disputed material facts will not preclude the trial court from evaluating for itself the merits of jurisdictional claims." Id. In considering a factual attack under Rule 12(b)(1), a courthas discretion to allow affidavits, documents, and even limited evidentiary hearings. Turicentro, S.A. v. Am. Airlines, Inc., 303 F.3d 293, 300 n.4 (3d Cir. 2002).

III. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff brings the current action pursuant to 29 U.S.C. §§ 1132(a)(1) and (a)(3), the civil enforcement provisions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), "to redress her wrongful denial of disability benefits recoverable under the terms and provisions of the Comcast Comprehensive Health and Welfare Plan ("Comcast Plan)." (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 1.) Defendants assert that because "Comcast's STD Plan is a 'payroll practice' exempt from ERISA, Plaintiff's Complaint must be dismissed for lack of federal court jurisdiction." (Doc. No.19 at 5.) The Third Circuit has stated that "[f]ederal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, and when there is a question as to our authority to hear a dispute, 'it is incumbent upon the courts to resolve such doubts, one way or the other, before proceeding to a disposition on the merits.'" Zambelli Fireworks Mfg. Co., Inc. v. Wood, 592 F.3d 412, 418 (3d Cir. 2010).

A. ERISA

Congress passed ERISA with the intention of safeguarding employees against the potential abuse and mismanagement of funds that had been accumulated to finance various types of employee benefits. Schwartz v. Liberty Life Assur. Co. of Bos., 470 F. Supp. 2d 511, 515 (E.D. Pa. 2007) (citing Massachusetts v. Morash, 490 U.S. 107, 112-13 (1989)). Pursuant to § 1132(e),*fn1 federal courts have jurisdiction over enforcement actions brought under the provisions of ERISA. However, this jurisdictional grant is prefaced on the fact that the plan under which the rights are being asserted is a plan governed by ERISA. ERISA governs "employee welfare benefit plans," which are defined as any program that provides "benefits in the event of sickness, accident, disability, death or unemployment" to employees or to their beneficiaries. 29 U.S.C. § 1002(1). While "ERISA broadly regulates employee welfare benefit plans to include those plans that provide short term disability benefits," there are several exceptions. Schwartz, 470 F. Supp. 2d at 515. One exception can be found at 29 CFR § 2510.3-1(b)(2), which states:

The terms "employee welfare benefit plan" and "welfare plan" shall not include . . . payment of an employee's normal compensation out of the general assets, on account of periods of time during which the employee is physically or mentally unable to perform his or her duties, or is otherwise absent for ...


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